DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Divisions are appearing among the pro-Russia separatists fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine.
The head of one influential rebel battalion in the region said Thursday he will not submit to the command of the military leader of the separatist insurgency.
Vostok commander Alexander Khodakovsky also said he would not abandon the rebel-held city of Donetsk even if ordered to do so. No such order has been issued, but rebel troops did flee from their stronghold in Slovyansk last weekend.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine over the past three months has claimed hundreds of lives.
In the past two weeks, Ukrainian government troops have halved the amount of territory held by the rebels in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which declared independence from the central government in Kiev. Now government forces are vowing a blockade of Donetsk, a city of 1 million people close to the Russian border.
In another sign of deteriorating morale among rebels, several dozen militia fighters in Donetsk abandoned their weapons and fatigues Thursday, telling their superiors they were returning home.
"Russia abandoned us. The leadership is bickering. They promise money but don't pay it. What's the point of fighting?" said 29-year old Oleg, a former miner who served in the Kalmius battalion.
The rebels have drawn much of their manpower and reportedly also equipment from Russia, although Moscow denies it has provided support.
Oleg, who refused to give his last name to an Associated Press journalist in a war zone because he said he feared retaliation for desertion, had served for a month in ranks of the militia. He said he will go home to Makiivka, where the Vostok battalion is now stationed.
At a press conference Thursday, the leader of the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk People's Republic dismissed any talk of infighting.
"These are lies and disinformation. There are no disagreements. We are now organizing our joint work," Alexander Boroday said.
The rebels, meanwhile, have several Ukrainian border posts along the border with Russia under their control. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had demanded them back and even let a cease-fire expire when the posts were not returned.
In Moscow on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Moscow was prepared to invite its Ukrainian counterparts to jointly monitor the border.
Lukashevich added, however, this would only be possible in case of a cease-fire.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.