DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine's government took an increasingly aggressive stance Tuesday toward the pro-Russia separatists, vowing to expunge them from their reduced area of control and imposing new conditions before peace talks can restart.
But as the military moves to encircle the rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, the government also said it would stop using the air and artillery strikes that drove the rebels from other towns so as to avoid terrorizing civilians.
Ukraine has displayed growing confidence in recent days after driving the insurgents from Slovyansk, a city that had been the heart of the armed resistance since mid-April. Security officials said Tuesday the area held by the rebels has been reduced by half.
This apparent rout has forced hundreds of militants to regroup in Donetsk, the regional capital, where they occupy government buildings and move freely around the city.
Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed independent Donetsk People's Republic, said the rebels have an estimated 15,000 fighters and are focusing their efforts on defending Donetsk, a major industrial hub of 1 million.
"We are creating one DPR fist that is ready to fight and repel the Ukrainian army," Purgin told the Associated Press.
He said his forces control all of Donetsk, where the normally busy streets were largely vacant, except for groups of automatic rifle-toting rebels on patrol.
A major asset still in government control is the Donetsk Airport, the scene of a bloody clash in May that claimed the lives of dozens of insurgents. Purgin vowed the rebels would soon take "all assets of interest, including the airport."
Donetsk Mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko, who has cautiously refrained from openly taking sides in the conflict, said Ukraine's president assured him the military will not launch air and artillery strikes on the city.