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Ukraine army takes control of shattered border post

Crouching behind sandbags next to the bombed out remains of a roadside cafe that once catered for truck drivers and tourists, Ukrainian troops guarded the Dolzhansky border post with Russian on Wednesday.

A day before they had battled back control of the strategic crossing from pro-Russian rebels in an advance Western-backed president Petro Poroshenko hailed as the “first victory” since he relaunched an offensive following the failure of a 10-day ceasefire.

Signs of fierce fighting were everywhere at the smouldering border post.

Bullet casings littered the tarmac and the passport control booth was riddled with holes.

Further on, two customs huts had been reduced to a mangled wreckage of twisted metal and scorched furniture.

Walking past the devastation, a border guard official said that shoring up control of Ukraine’s leaky frontier was a primary objective of the reinvigorated military campaign.

Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of sending supplies, fighters and even tanks across the porous border to keep the brutal three-month rebellion going.

“We are moving from controlling our border to defending it,” said the border official, asking not to be named.

The first task though, the official said, was to clear the area of mines the rebels had planted all over.

In a statement the defence ministry said that army sappers had defused some 35 explosive devices riddling the checkpoint.

“Be careful where you’re walking and try to drive in the middle of the road,” the official cautioned.

The route up to the border was almost entirely deserted and the few cars that dared to head out here were turned back immediately.

“Can we drive across?” asked a grey-haired man in white t-shirt, getting of his sedan car.

“We just want to go and check on my grandson and granddaughter on the other side.”

“Nobody is getting through here,” replied a young soldier, a kalashnikov slung over his soldier.

“Nobody is going to be driving across, walking across or flying across. It’s completely closed.”

The taking of the border post has been heralded by Kiev as proof of its determination to stamp out the insurgency.

But the capture of this border post is the only success so far since operations were restarted and Ukrainian forces still have a long way to go to secure the frontier with Russia.

– Rebels in control –

Although Poroshenko has ordered a string of crossings closed the rebels still control stretches of the leaky frontier.

Highlighting the instability, one border guard was killed overnight when insurgents opened fire on a post further south, the border service said Wednesday.

And despite Kiev’s claims of a full-scale onslaught, not far away rebels remain in firm control.

Some 20 kilometres (12 miles) along the main road into Ukraine is the first of a string of separatist checkpoints where armed insurgents check vehicles and demand documents.

There were though some indications that the fighting was becoming more serious.

Separatist supporter Natasha picks through the twisted metal casings of some half dozen Grad missiles that she says were fired at the checkpoint an hour after the truce ended.

“Look at what our kind Ukrainian army sent for us,” she said, adjusting her camouflage cap.

While shelling has rumbled on even during the ceasefire, she said the rebels had recently reinforced the post.

“Up until the past few days there were only locals here but now they started sending the proper fighters.”