Rebel deminers comb Ukraine battleground town

1st March 2015, Comments 0 comments

A week since pro-Russian rebels forced Ukrainian soldiers from the key transport hub of Debaltseve, the sound of explosions still reverberates around the eastern town.

This, however, is not the boom of artillery fire and combat -- it is teams of Cossack deminers from the separatist side blowing up mines and unexploded ordnance littering this war-scarred railway junction.

Denis Zaitsev is the man in charge of three squads of sappers deployed by the insurgents in the wake of their victory here.

Sporting a black Cossack fur hat, Zaitsev points to the front door of a small building where one of his teams is working.

Ukrainian troops stored food in the building. A white thread is suspended, some 20 centimetres (eight inches) from the ground with one end tied to the pin of a grenade.

"The Ukrainians left us a lot of little surprises like this," deminer Sergei Cherpakhin says with a smile.

A rebel in camouflage gear, but without any protective equipment, edges towards the booby trap and cuts the wire with pliers.

He then picks up the grenade with his bare hands and passes it over to his boss.

A few metres (yards) further on, three mortars are buried in the earth.

"These are anti-tank mines," commander Zaitsev explains.

His team lays TNT on top and then, after some nearby fighters are ordered to take cover, they blow the charge, sending dirt flying into the air.

"We deactivate around twenty mortars, mines or booby traps every day and more are disposed of by soldiers who just don't tell us about it," Zaitsev says.

"We find them even in residential areas."

- Rocket in the roof -

Since the rebels captured Debaltseve, the fighting in east Ukraine has died down in recent days as a shaky ceasefire has begun to take hold.

Both sides say they are now pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline in line with a peace deal that seeks to give civilians across the conflict zone a much needed respite from over 10 months of fighting that has cost some 5,800 lives.

But for residents left behind in Debaltseve after the fighting, the deadly legacy of weeks of ferocious battles for the town can still be felt all around.

Tamara Slivinskaya, 61, stands waiting for her box of food aid from the Red Cross in the central Lenin square.

"Oh yes, the mines are very scary," she says. "We don't have any running water here and you want to go and get some from the wells."

"But we're too scared of getting blown up," she continues.

Slivinskaya lives on the penultimate floor of a nine-storey apartment block.

She says the Ukrainian soldiers -- who she calls "Nazis" -- were camped out on the one remaining floor above her to help direct artillery fire.

In the stairwell leading up to their observation post they set up three trip wires that were attached to "something looking like a grenade" to stop residents getting too close, she explains.

Back hard at work, the Cossack squads are just finishing up gathering all the unexploded munitions from a patch of territory around the town's weather station.

By the time they've completed that, however, the call comes in with another location to search -- the grounds of a metal plant where the Ukrainian forces dug in.

After weaving their way through the pockmarked town to the site, the sappers begin combing a water tower there that a government sniper had apparently occupied.

To their relief they find nothing there. But it is only a momentary respite.

Their next job comes in almost immediately -- an unexploded rocket lodged in the roof of a factory nearby.


© 2015 AFP

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