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Kiev (AFP) – Ukrainian forces said they had hoisted the national flag over the strategic rebel-held port of Mariupol on Friday in their biggest advance since Petro Poroshenko’s election as the insurgency-wrecked country’s pro-Western president.

Poroshenko celebrated the soldiers’ “heroism” by proclaiming the industrial Sea of Azov city of half-a-million people the new temporary capital of Donetsk — an eastern rustbelt region overrun by pro-Russian gunmen for the past two months.

The 48-year-old chocolate baron rose to power in a snap May 25 ballot called after the February ouster of a Russian-backed leader by vowing to move Ukraine closer to Europe and end fighting that has claimed 270 lives.

But the battles have since only intensified and his calls for dialogue with more separatist leaders have been mostly ignored.

Poroshenko’s troubles have been compounded by the threat of Ukraine being cut off from economically-vital Russian gas shipments as early as Monday morning because of a bitter price dispute.

Mariupol has wavered between rebel and Kiev control for weeks and was also the scene of pitched battles on May 9 that killed more than a dozen people.

The bustling port provides access to the main highway linking other regions with Russia and is the main export channel for coal and industrial products fundamental to Ukraine’s economic growth.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that federal forces led by the part-volunteer National Guard had inflicted “heavy losses” on the rebels while seeing only four soldiers suffer light wounds.

His deputy told reporters that 30 pro-Russian gunmen had been captured in a coordinated push involving special forces that saw rebels driven from the city’s seat of power they had reoccupied about a month ago.

“Thanks to the heroism shown by Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol, the situation in the city has been stabilized,” Poroshenko’s office said in a statement.

“In light of this, it would be prudent to transfer the operation of the Donetsk regional administration to Mariupol,” he wrote.

The region’s main administration building in Donetsk remains under rebel control.

Ukraine’s interior ministry said the city had been under the effective control of a Chechen crime boss with no native roots to either the city or the region.

“The terrorists from the Donetsk People’s Republic are being headed by a criminal boss known as ‘The Chechen,'” Avakov wrote in a Facebook post.

The new Ukrainian leaders have keen to prove that the separatist insurgency was being choreographed by the Kremlin and had only limited support among ethnic Russians who make up a large minority of regional residents.

Poroshenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday in their first official phone exchange that the reported border crossing of three tanks into eastern Ukraine was “unacceptable”.

Well-equipped gunmen from Chechnya — a Muslim Russian republic that fought two post-Soviet wars for independence before falling under Kremlin control — have appeared in growing numbers among the separatists.

The tense exchanges between Kiev and Moscow have been fueled in part by the lack of any progress in a high-stakes “gas war”.

The dispute — a nagging presence for most of the past two decades — flared up again when Moscow nearly doubled Kiev’s rates in the wake of the February ouster of Ukraine’s Russian-backed president.

Ukraine receives half of its gas supplies from Russia and transports 15 percent of the fuel consumed in Europe.

The head of Ukraine’s state energy firm said Kiev was ready to make a $1.95-billion (1.45-billion-euro) payment demanded by Moscow by Monday if Russia settled on a price of $326 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas.

The figure runs in the middle of the “final price” offer Putin made on Wednesday and the rate sought by Ukraine.

Moscow is yet to respond to Kiev’s latest suggestion. A spokeswoman for Russia’s energy minister also refused to confirm EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger’s earlier suggestion that new negotiations might be held on Saturday.

“We are not planning any meetings so far,” energy ministry spokeswoman Olga Golant told AFP.

Analysts said the talks’ slow progress reflected the complete loss of trust between the neighbors and the high stakes involved in the broader East-West battle for the future of the ex-Soviet state.

“We see gas talks as the derivative of the wider dispute between Russia and Ukraine,” New York’s Morgan Stanley investment bank said in a research note.

AFP Photo/Daniel Mihailescu

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