Pro-Russian rebels erected new barricades on the streets of Donetsk today, preparing to make a stand in the city of a million people after losing their bastion in the town of Slovyansk in the worst defeat of their three month uprising.
Occasional bursts of gunfire could be heard in the distance from the centre of Donetsk, where residents said they were now living in fear of a potential battle between government forces and the separatist gunmen now out in force.
Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Ahmetov, today pleaded with the government not to bomb his home city. Local authorities say thousands of residents have left Donetsk, but most have nowhere to go.
The Kiev government has said it will act quickly to seize back more territory from the rebels after re-taking Slovyansk over the weekend in what president Petro Poroshenko called a turning point in the conflict.
Rebels retreating from Slovyansk, some driving armoured vehicles flying Russian flags, drove 110 km south into Donetsk over the weekend.
About 1,000 of them held a bellicose rally in the central square yesterday, and today many were visible on the streets, having established checkpoints to check the documents of drivers.
Although most shops and businesses were still open, some were shut and residents spoke of their fear that government forces could soon attack.
“The atmosphere is very tense now, there is no prospect of a future. You go to sleep in alarm and waken up in alarm,” said Konstantin (28), a local resident.
“The Kiev authorities promise to tighten a ring around Donetsk and meticulously clear it of fighters. I don’t know what to believe in any more. Donetsk is bigger than Slaviansk but it seems to me it won’t end with one single ring. All the same I have the impression the fighters will yield their positions.”
The rebels' commander, a Muscovite using the name Igor Strelkov, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying his men would fight for the city, which was "much easier to defend than little Slovyansk".
Mr Strelkov's whereabouts were not immediately clear. Rebel sources said two other prominent local separatist leaders, Alexander Boroday and Denis Pushilin, were both in Russia.
The retreat from Slovyansk appears to have hurt the morale of the fighters, who have held sway in some eastern towns and cities since rising up in April.
One fighter from a group called the Vostok battalion, who declined to give his name, said: “It’s a real mess. But we are being badly hit by artillery. We don’t even see it coming.”
Just outside Donetsk, a railway bridge running across the main road connecting the town to Slovyansk was blown up today as a cargo train crossed it. It was not clear who had carried out the attack.
The city is the headquarters for Mr Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest man by far, whose fortune, founded on coal and steel, is put at more than $11 billion by Forbes. He said government forces should show restraint in the surrounding Donbass region.
“Donetsk must not be bombed. Donbass must not be bombed. Cities, towns and infrastructure must not be destroyed,” he told Ukraina television. “We must avoid suffering and deaths of peaceful people.”
Maksim Rovinsky of Donetsk's town council said 20,000-30,000 residents had left - "people who had somewhere else to go to".
The government said it had carried out an air strike against rebel fighters who had attacked the airport in Luhansk, another eastern city, yesterday. It accused separatists in the area of opening fire in populated areas disguised as government forces.
The Defence Ministry today said separatists had launched 10 attacks on government posts and army positions in the previous 24 hours with mortars and small arms. It gave no details of the incidents or casualties, but said troops had returned fire: "The terrorists were given a fitting reply."
More than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebels in the conflict.