Eastern Ukraine rebels say Kiev waging phoney war
Pro-Russian rebels armed with assault rifles stroll the peaceful streets and man razor wire-topped roadblocks in Mariupol, a congested industrial port in southeast Ukraine, the scene of deadly clashes last month.
The Sea of Azov city of half a million mostly Russian speakers is said to be at the heart of an intense "anti-terror" campaign unleashed against separatist gunmen nearly two months ago.
But the pro-Moscow militia claim it is a phoney war.
"You could say that the city belongs to us in the sense that there are no Ukrainian troops here," said local military commander Andrei, who like many rebels refuses to divulge his last name.
"The Ukrainian forces claim they have kicked off an operation against us in Mariupol, but we haven't seen anything."
A city engulfed by street clashes that left up to 20 people dead on May 9 when rebels seized the local police headquarters is emblematic of Kiev's rather sporadic military approach, with sudden offensives often followed by seemingly inexplicable retreats.
"Anti-terrorist forces are carrying out a special operation in Mariupol, with good results," Semen Semenchenko, the commander of the "Donbass Battalion", a unit of volunteers supporting Ukrainian forces in the area, announced in a recent Facebook post.
But not only has Kiev's campaign left the rebel headquarters in peace, it also seems to have gone unnoticed by many residents carrying on with their daily routines in the bustling city centre.
"An anti-terrorist operation in Mariupol? I'm not aware of one. I haven't seen anything," said Yelena Dyomina, who sells soft drinks and cigarettes from a tiny stall.
Other vendors nearby seemed just as confused.
- Still on alert -
Even so, the 15 armed men surrounding "commander" Andrei at the headquarters of the pro-Russian separatists remained on alert.
Located on the outskirts of the city, their building has been transformed into a veritable fortress, reinforced by concrete blocks and piles of sandbags.
Observation posts have been set up, and fighters are paying close attention to passing vehicles and pedestrians.
A suspicious-looking car immediately sparks tension, and the guards clutch their rifles, finger on the trigger.
"The situation has been pretty calm the past few days," said Andrei, who carries a gun and a dagger in his belt and describes himself as "the military commandant of Mariupol".
However, soldiers of the Ukrainian military are not far away.
Only five kilometres (three miles) from Andrei's headquarters, they have set up a roadblock, reinforced by armoured vehicles, and carefully check each vehicle that passes through.
A little further on by the city's airport, which has been closed, three tanks of the Ukrainian army and 50 soldiers of the National Guard have taken up positions.
Behind them, a huge radar suggests the presence of air defence batteries.
Unconfirmed reports say there has been a recent shooting at the airport, but "commander" Andrei says his troops have not participated in any fighting in the area.
Airports in the two major cities of Ukraine's separatist regions, Donetsk and Lugansk, have both been attacked by pro-Russian insurgents, but Ukrainian forces have so far managed to maintain control.
© 2014 AFP