Ukraine town 'deserted and destroyed' after rebel offensive
The town of Vuglegirsk sits deserted and littered with rubble after pro-Russian rebels advancing on nearby Debaltseve forced out Ukrainian soldiers during days of heavy fighting.
Homes in ruins, downed power lines snaking through the debris and trees reduced to splintered stumps dominate the landscape in this corner of eastern Ukraine.
"Vuglegirsk had 9,500 inhabitants. At most there's 500 left and most of them live in cellars," said rebel commander Alexei, 32, who declined to give his last name.
The streets are nearly deserted and there is no sign of life in the buildings, which have neither water, gas, nor electricity.
What happened to Vuglegirsk during its capture by pro-Russian forces is now happening to the next town in the crosshairs -- the strategic rail hub of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian government troops are almost encircled.
Rebels are gaining ground as they close in on Debaltseve, which is roughly halfway between the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk. They have been pounding the beleaguered town with tanks and rocket launchers.
Kiev authorities said on Tuesday that artillery strikes had killed three civilians and wounded seven in Debaltseve, a typical daily toll for the town that was home to 25,000 people. Around 700 civilians fled on Saturday during a brief ceasefire.
"Debaltseve is now almost completely cut off. There's just one road out and it's within range of our artillery," said rebel commander Alexei, 32.
As he spoke in Vuglegirsk, armoured vehicles sped through on their way to the front across countryside littered with gun emplacements and military camps.
Besides Debaltseve's strategic value, its fall would be a new symbolic blow for Kiev in the wake of the loss of Donetsk airport in January after months of fierce fighting.
"Taking Vuglegirsk was difficult, it took us three days," said a rebel commander, 43, who gave his name only as Dima.
"Our unit was the first to go in. There were 25 of us and we lost 12 men. Now, our objective is Debaltseve," he vowed.
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine hope to meet in Minsk on Wednesday to negotiate the latest attempt to stop the 10-month conflict that has killed at least 5,400 people.
But at the front, rebel commanders and troops do not have much faith in a new truce.
"Ceasefires are never respected. They just let forces regroup," said Alexei.
On Vuglegirsk's outskirts, Vladimir Semlivenko, 47, still lives in his small house despite constant artillery fire nearby.
The road into town is littered with the carcasses of tanks and artillery pieces, testimony to the fierce fighting of recent days.
"My wife and son are safe, but I'm not leaving. I have to look after my two cows," he said. "When I get scared I hide in the cellar. If it's my time to go, then it's my time."
© 2015 AFP