Ukraine troops pull out of besieged flashpoint town

18th February 2015, Comments 0 comments

Ukrainian troops pulled out of the flashpoint eastern town of Debaltseve on Wednesday after it was stormed by pro-Russian rebels in what the EU said was a "clear violation" of an internationally-backed truce.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said 80 percent of the thousands of soldiers in the town -- a strategic railway hub sandwiched between the two main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk -- had withdrawn.

AFP journalists near the town but prevented from entering saw dozens of army tanks and vehicles carrying haggard soldiers leaving Debaltseve.

The rebels' assault on Debaltseve dealt a heavy blow to the European-brokered truce agreed by all sides last week in a bid to quell a 10-month conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people.

But France insisted the truce it helped broker last week in the Belarus capital Minsk "was not dead".

A French government spokesman noted "progress" along much of the rest of the conflict zone and said all would be done to hold the ceasefire together.

French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko were to speak by telephone on Wednesday.

Western countries blame the relentless violence in Ukraine on Russia. They say Moscow is cynically playing with the truce -- which won unanimous backing from the UN Security Council on Tuesday -- to keep Ukraine destabilised.

"The actions by the Russia-backed separatists in Debaltseve are a clear violation of the ceasefire," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to "withdraw all its forces from eastern Ukraine, to stop its support for separatists and to respect the Minsk agreement".

"I am deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation in and around Debaltseve," he said in Latvia.

- Putin call to surrender -

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who repeatedly denies directly helping the insurgency, on Tuesday urged the Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve to surrender.

"Obviously it's bad to lose," Putin said during a visit to Hungary. "But life is life and it still goes on."

A rebel military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, told Russian television on Wednesday that more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers had given themselves up to the insurgents, the Interfax news agency reported.

A regional deputy police chief in Debaltseve, Ilya Kiva, told AFP by telephone that some soldiers were taken prisoner but would not say how many.

Kiva confirmed the soldiers' evacuation, but added that some street fighting was continuing.

Amnesty International has expressed concern about the treatment of prisoners taken in the Ukraine conflict, noting brutality by both sides.

An estimated 5,000 civilians are thought to have been trapped in the town, with little water or food in the brutal winter.

Journalists, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe officials tasked with monitoring the ceasefire, have been barred from Debaltseve by the rebels surrounding it and were therefore unable to verify the situation.

- 'We've lost so many' -

Poroshenko, who went to visit the frontline on Wednesday, said the troop pull-out from the town was "a planned and organised withdrawal" and that, "from 2,000 soldiers, we have 30 who are wounded".

He said hostilities in Debaltseve "demonstrate to the world the true face of the bandit separatists supported by Russia".

He reiterated a call for the US and EU to get "tough" with Moscow. The West has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia, and the EU and Canada ratcheted their measures up further this week.

In Washington, the White House issued a statement that "strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces" and warned that "the costs to Russia will rise" if the truce is further violated.

A worker at a hospital in town of Gorlivka near Debaltseve told AFP that "several soldiers underwent emergency surgery" there early Wednesday.

Occasional artillery blasts could be heard. A Gorlivka municipal councillor, Tatiana Dementchenko, said the bombardments had been non-stop overnight.

"We really hope that will all cease very soon. We've lost so many men, so many civilians," she said, adding that two children, aged two and four, were killed by shelling near her apartment on Sunday -- the first day of the ceasefire.

"The shelling hasn't stopped since. That's what the truce looks like here."

© 2015 AFP

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