Ukraine rebel commander says will not pull out of Donetsk

DONETSK Ukraine Thu Jul 10, 2014 3:38pm EDT

Pro-Russian separatist fighters gesture from an armoured missile launcher at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 10, 2014. Ukrainian forces regained more ground but sustained further casualties on Thursday in clashes with separatists, while two Western allies urged Russia's Vladimir Putin to exert more pressure on the rebels to find a negotiated end to the conflict. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Pro-Russian separatist fighters gesture from an armoured missile launcher at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 10, 2014. Ukrainian forces regained more ground but sustained further casualties on Thursday in clashes with separatists, while two Western allies urged Russia's Vladimir Putin to exert more pressure on the rebels to find a negotiated end to the conflict.

Credit: Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Related Topics

DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - An enigmatic Russian leading separatist rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk made a rare appearance in public on Thursday to say he would not abandon the city though he defended his decision to pull out of the stronghold of Slaviansk.

Igor Girkin, a Muscovite who has the nom de guerre of Igor Strelkov, has been criticized by some other rebel commanders for withdrawing from Slaviansk last weekend and allowing government forces to savor a major victory.

Hundreds of his men headed south to Donetsk, the region's main industrial center, after the rout and are digging in now in the city of more than 900,000 people as government forces appear to be preparing a blockade to break their resistance.

Asked by a journalist if he would make a similar tactical withdrawal from Donetsk to save people's lives, the reason he gave for quitting Slaviansk, the 43-year-old Strelkov said simply: "No".

Alexander Borodai, the "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed "people's republic" seated alongside him, added: "Where would we go ? We will defend the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic."

Strelkov, who disclosed on Thursday he had been a colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service - the successor agency to the KGB - has been on Ukraine's 'most-wanted' list since he began marshalling rebel forces against the Kiev government in April.

While he commanded forces in Slaviansk, the town became a citadel of fierce resistance and at least two government military helicopters were brought down in the area by rebel fire.

HERO STATUS

Said to have a penchant for historical battle recreations and enjoying the profile of an elusive adventurer dropping casually in and out of conflict zones, Strelkov began to take on hero status in rebel quarters.

But this reputation has been dented by the Slaviansk withdrawal and retreat to Donetsk in which, Strelkov admitted on Thursday, he lost a tenth of his men.

On Thursday, the moustachioed Strelkov, dressed in combat fatigues with an antiquated pistol strapped to his hip, spoke without emotion as he defended the move in which rebels broke out from a government noose around Slaviansk.

"Militarily, the reason for withdrawal of the garrison from Slaviansk was obvious. My conscience is absolutely clear," he said. "More than 90 percent of the force got out of Slaviansk and safely got to Donetsk."

The need to justify the withdrawal from Slaviansk may have been his main reason for appearing before representatives of the world's media on Thursday.

He gave few details about his past though he said he left Russia's FSB service with the rank of colonel.

But he said he had battlefield experience as a volunteer fighter in Moldova's rebel enclave of Transdniestria and in Bosnia. He had also fought, he said, in Russia's former rebellious region of Chechnya.

He said he had been specifically asked to lead the separatist rebellion in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east - but would not say by whom specifically.

"I was asked to help in organizing a force, to lead a group which was ready to rise up in rebellion," he said, saying only that the approach had come from people with whom he had been serving with in Crimea which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March.

"They considered I could do this successfully, more successfully than they could, and I agreed to their proposal and so I came to the territory of Ukraine," he said.

(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (3)
111Dave111 wrote:
Igor Girkin, a Muscovite who has the nom de guerre of Igor Strelkov.
Strelkov disclosed he had been a colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB. He had battlefield experience as a fighter in Moldova’s rebel enclave of Transdniestria and in Bosnia (Srebrenica?). He had also fought in Russia’s former rebellious region of Chechnya. He said he had been specifically asked to lead the separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east – but would not say by whom specifically. “I was asked to help in organizing a force, to lead a group which was ready to rise up in rebellion,” he said, saying only that the approach had come from people with whom he had been serving with in Crimea which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March.

He probably has a box of ears and a tattoo with Putin’s name.
I think he just made himself a target for Seal Team 6 or the CIA.

Jul 10, 2014 7:53pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
111Dave111 wrote:
Alexander Cherkasov, head of Russia’s leading human rights group Memorial, is convinced that the “Igor Strelkov” of Ukraine is the same person as a Russian military officer called “Strelkov”, who was identified as being directly responsible for at least six instances (on four separate occasions) of the forced disappearance and presumed murder of residents of Chechnya’s mountain Vedensky District village of Khatuni and nearby settlements of Makhkety and Tevzeni in 2001-2002, when “Strelkov” was attached to the 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment special forces unit of the Russian Airborne Troops based near Khatuni.

Jul 10, 2014 8:15pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
CanRus wrote:
I wonder how “protesters” got their hands on a mobile rocket launcher?…

“Asked by a journalist if he would make a similar tactical withdrawal from Donetsk … [Girkin] Strelkov said simply: ‘No’.”
“Alexander Borodai … added ‘Where would we go ? We will defend the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic.’
Girkin and Borodai will certainly abandon Donetsk, their local recruits, and possibly the Russian mercenaries assisting them – as soon as they think their lives are at risk. Where will they go? Back where they came from obviously – Russia. I’m sure they already have an escape plan. And some of their brainwashed lackeys will no doubt sacrifice themselves to help these two terrorist leaders run back to Momma Putin. Why would they stick around to risk getting killed or arrested? That fate is good enough for their pawns, but certainly not them.

Jul 11, 2014 8:25am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.