Battle rages for key Ukraine town as US accuses Russia
Battles raged for control of the eastern Ukrainian flashpoint town of Debaltseve on Wednesday as the West pointedly blamed Russia and rebel forces for violating the internationally-backed ceasefire.
Dozens of Ukrainian tanks and army vehicles were seen leaving the strategic transport hub, which is being besieged by pro-Moscow separatists despite the truce deal.
"We are evacuating some of our units," Ilya Kiva, a regional deputy police chief inside Debaltseve, told AFP by telephone, but added that reinforcements were expected to arrive.
"Full-scale street fighting continues and there was also a small tank battle," he said.
He said some Ukrainian soldiers were being held prisoner by the rebels but did not say how many, calling it a "military secret".
A rebel military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, told Russian television that more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered, the Interfax news agency reported.
He estimated that 3,000 Ukrainian troops remained in the town.
An AFP reporter said tanks and other vehicles were seen pulling out of Debaltseve, carrying haggard-looking unshaven troops to the nearby town of Artemivsk.
The government in Kiev was reluctant to give full information of the situation in Debaltseve, a key railway hub located between the separatist-held cities of Donestk and Lugansk.
"A part of the Ukrainian troop deployment still remains in Debaltseve, where they are carrying out a special operation," said military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev.
Journalists and monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tasked with overseeing the ceasefire have been prevented by rebels from entering the town.
Some 5,000 civilians are thought to be trapped there, many sheltering from the brutal winter in cellars with little water or food.
- US condemns violation -
The battle for Debaltseve deals a severe blow to international hopes for a ceasefire that came into force at the weekend as part of a peace plan aimed at ending the 10-month conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 5,600 people.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday unanimously backed the ceasefire, brokered last week by France and Germany, and "called on all parties to immediately cease hostilities".
Western fury was directed at Russia, which is accused of giving military backing to the separatists in an effort to foil Ukraine's ambitions of moving closer towards the European Union or NATO.
The United States "strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces, in and around the town of Debaltseve," Vice-President Joe Biden said after speaking by telephone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
"If Russia continues to violate the Minsk agreements, including the most recent agreement signed on February 12, the costs to Russia will rise," the White House statement added.
The EU and Canada this week announced more sanctions against Moscow and its sympathisers, adding to others that are accelerating the Russian economy's slide into recession.
- Putin urges troops to surrender -
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who insists his country plays no direct role in Ukraine, has called on the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in Debaltseve to surrender.
"I hope that the Ukrainian authorities are not going to prevent the Ukrainian soldiers from laying down their weapons," Putin said Tuesday during a visit to Hungary.
Putin also claimed that Washington had already started supplying weapons to Ukraine and warned that "the number of casualties can certainly increase" as a result.
He said the Ukraine conflict cannot be solved by "military means".
Poroshenko accused Russia of a "cynical attack" on the truce agreement and urged the West to take "tough" measures against Moscow and the rebels.
© 2015 AFP