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MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukrainian forces drove pro-Russian rebels from police headquarters in the eastern city of Mariupol on Friday in a pitched battle, killing 20 of them, the Kiev Interior Ministry said. The forces then withdrew from the center of the city.
The action appeared to be one of the biggest yet in Kiev's attempt to end an insurgency in the country's east, though the number of dead could not be independently confirmed. But having expelled the armed fighters from the yellow-stone building, burnt out in the course of the clashes, the Ukrainian forces, along with their armored cars, abandoned the area.
International efforts are afoot to forge some form of settlement in Ukraine to prevent a slide into a civil war that could have dramatic consequences for the whole region. With presidential elections approaching in two weeks, Kiev is under pressure to restore order across the country.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said an attempt by "terrorists" to seize police headquarters turned into a pitched battle inside the building with Ukrainian army, national guard and security forces.
"A terrorist group of about 60 men armed with automatic weapons attacked the police headquarters...About 20 terrorists were destroyed and four taken prisoner," Avakov said on his Facebook page.
"To those who come with weapons and who shoot and who take hostages, torture them, rob people, hiding behind various slogans - to them there can be only one answer from the Ukrainian state - annihilation."
The death toll could not be confirmed independently and each side has tended to exaggerate the other's losses during clashes.
Mariupol, an important industrial and shipping center in the Donetsk region that is planning a secessionist referendum on Sunday, has been the focus of frequent skirmishes in recent days. But previous brief forays into the town by Ukrainian forces had not resulted in shooting or deaths.
Friday's action appeared to be a concerted effort by several branches of the forces to demonstrate authority in a town where administrative buildings have changed hands several times since mid-April. The police headquarters stood gutted and abandoned.
The West and Kiev accuse Russia of conniving to undermine Ukraine while the Kremlin, in the worst East-West crisis of the post-Cold War era, accuses them of blocking any attempt at conciliation with the east.
Interfax news agency quoted Miroslav Rudenko, a leader of the self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Donetsk", a pro-Russian entity that is holding a secession referendum on Sunday, as saying: "After what they (Ukrainian forces) did today in Mariupol, after that number of dead, there can be no talk of peaceful dialogue."
Avakov seemed to appeal to the local population to back the Ukrainian forces.
"Everyone decides for himself. The situation has become black-white...Enough politicking, foolish behavior and posturing," he said.
Avakov made particular mention of the broad involvement of several arms of the security forces including special forces, National Guard and Army. One of the weaknesses of what Kiev calls its "Anti-Terrorist Operation" in the east has been a failure of various units to coordinate.
writing by Ralph Boulton