Port city waits as Kiev loyalists prepare for battle
With pro-Russian rebels threatening at the gates, fighters loyal to Kiev in Mariupol are having to face a hard truth: they will be unable to save this vital port city alone.
"We're the only ones here," sighs 'Botsman', the leader of one unit in the Azov volunteer battalion trying to hold out as pro-Russian rebel forces sweep west.
From a promontory above the Azov Sea, in the "no man's land" between the two lines, he can see Novoazovsk, a seaside town just across the bay captured by the rebels on Wednesday after days of fierce fighting.
Since it fell, this south-eastern port city has felt like a place awaiting its fate.
"The Ukrainian army has pulled back," says 'Panther', a fellow loyalist fighter covered in tatoos who identifies himself as a "Ukrainian nationalist".
The situation, says Botsman, is getting bad.
Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the separatist's self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, has recently laid his cards on the table about Mariupol.
"We don't plan on storming the city tomorrow, or even the next day, but we will be going in in the near future," he has said.
- Uneasy calm -
While Mariupol waits, there is an uneasy calm. Just behind the last roadblock held by the army, hundreds of people have gathered, many dressed in the sunflower yellow and sky blue of Ukraine's national flag.
In the fields beside them, a series of trenches are being dug to try to halt any future advance into the city from the east, while soldiers sing "Ukraine is not dead".
The other slogans tell of a population still proudly loyal to Kiev, even as the tide in the east seems to be turning against them.
"Glory to Ukraine," and "Putin out", shout some of the fighters. "Agents of the Kremlin: know that Mariupol is Ukrainian", echo the crowd.
The mood among fighters is equally defiant, but matched with an awareness that as things stand, it would not take long for them to be outgunned.
Botsman, a Russian by blood and a veteran of the war in Chechnya, says he is here to fight Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He starts to go through the list of what the pro-Kiev fighters need: tanks, drones, heavy artillery, up-to-date-maps, a less-chaotic form of leadership.
"As you can see, what we have here is hardly the top-grade material" on show at the Kiev military parade, he says, sardonically.
The Azov battalion is said to be one of the most radical nationalist groups fighting in the area. They won Mariupol back from the separatists in June.
If the town falls again, it will be the second notch for the separatists along this southern coast. Another few hundred kilometres, and the path reaches Crimea, the region annexed by Russia in March.
As well as its strategic importance, the loss of the town would be a symbolic blow for Kiev, whose army has been pushed back over the last week from the south-eastern front.
"It is the last big town in the region under Ukrainian control, home to half a million people," the commander of the Azov battalion, Andrey Biletsky, tells AFP.
He admits that there are few official troops and tanks now here, but insists that the situation is not yet "critical", and says he is confident "the army will send reinforcements".
- Waiting game -
Panther is convinced that they are up not just against pro-Russian rebels but regular Russian troops as well. Asked how he rates their chances, his assessment is glum.
"We can hold them off, but for how long? We don't have the strength to beat them."
Another difficulty is that even in this pro-Kiev bastion, not everyone is with them. Their flags are sometimes painted red by pro-Moscow locals among the population.
Biletsky says it is clear "that part of the population here no longer supports Ukraine, but we cannot abandon those who are depending on us."
On Saturday, things were calm between the lines of Mariupol, the loyalists of Novoazovsk, and the separatists fighting to defeat them.
Botsman thinks their enemies are afraid of the mines, or are considering, instead, an attack on Olenivka to the north.
"If they take Olenivka, the northern road to Mariupol will also be open," he says. "And if they take Mariupol, they will not stop."
On the other side of the front, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) away, a fighter called "Svat" guards the pro-Russian position. "We wait," he says, although he doesn't add what for.
© 2014 AFP