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Separatists brace for assault as Ukrainian tanks roll in

Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard in front a barricade  at a checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 24, 2014
Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard in front a barricade at a checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 24, 2014

Pungent fumes rose Thursday from the burning tyres and sandbags piled across one of the main roads leading to Slavyansk, the flashpoint eastern Ukrainian town controlled by rebels, where insurgents had just faced down the first challenge from Ukrainian tanks.

But if there was any damage to the roadblock, the rebels had only themselves to blame, as the tanks bearing Ukraine's flags had turned around almost as soon as they arrived, before disappearing into the countryside -- all without firing a single shot.

"We should never have set this on fire. What a bunch of idiots! Now we're going to have to rebuild everything," said one of the pro-Russian militants manning the roadblock.

He and others in his team had earlier set fire to the tyres, unleashing a cloud of fumes, as they braced for an assault from the tanks while a helicopter hovered above.

"But there was no exchange of shots. (The tanks) stopped, the soldiers took up position there and there," said Filip, a shop owner turned volunteer fighter at the barricade.

What about the shots heard by AFP journalists? Ukrainian soldiers "undoubtedly fired shots in the air to get curious bystanders out of the way", he said.

Kiev had ordered an offensive against the rebels resumed, after the pro-Kremlin separatists refused to abide by an agreement between Russia, the West and Ukraine which required them to disarm and cede control of the buildings they had seized.

While Washington and Kiev have put the onus on the militants to implement the deal, Moscow said the responsibility fell to the pro-Western nationalists camping out in Kiev.

Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard next to a barricade at a checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 24, 2014
Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard next to a barricade at a checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 24, 2014

The Ukrainian military's last outing to quash the rebellion in the east had proved humiliating, ending with six armoured vehicles seized by separatists. Three of the vehicles are still parked at Slavyansk's Karl Marx street, an indictment of the failed operation.

- Deadly assaults -

To hear it from official sources, Thursday's operations were deadly.

Five insurgents were killed, said Kiev, while the separatists said one of their members was killed and another seriously wounded in clashes about a dozen kilometres away from the roadblock. A Ukrainian soldier was also wounded in the fighting at the village of Khrestyshche, Kiev said.

But at the completely deserted site, there was no trace that any fighting had taken place.

The centre of Slavyansk, which counts about 110,000 inhabitants, meanwhile appeared combat ready.

A Ukrainian helicopter drops leaflets as it flies above the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 24, 2014
A Ukrainian helicopter drops leaflets as it flies above the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 24, 2014

A curfew had been in place from midnight to six in the morning while the town's rebel chief Vyacheslav Ponomaryov had ordered civilians to leave the city hall where additional sandbags had been piled out to withstand any assault.

School was out and banks were closed.

Ponomaryov claimed that "more than 12,500 men have surrounded" the town, and that he could count on "2,500 volunteers" to defend the inhabitants. But neither of the figures could be confirmed.

He also confirmed that two other checkpoints came under attack Thursday in Slavyansk, but there were no victims on his side.