What truce? Ukraine rebels on road to besieged town

17th February 2015, Comments 0 comments

Ducking for cover behind the walls of a ruined house, pro-Russian rebels unleash a hail of automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades at Ukrainian troops just a few hundred metres away.

As insurgents pushed into the key transport hub of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine Tuesday, fighting also raged on in the tiny village of Chornukhyne, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) to the east.

"The Ukrainians are encircled. We are occupying Debaltseve, except for just a few districts," said a rebel military commander nicknamed Filin.

From a few kilometres away, AFP journalists could hear ferocious fighting continuing inside the town -- a vital transport hub halfway between the rebel centres of Donetsk and Lugansk -- three days after a ceasefire between Kiev and the separatists was supposed to start.

The burnt-out remains of a dozen tanks and armoured vehicles lay scattered around the village of Chornukhyne and no house had been left undamaged.

The bodies of three Ukrainian soldiers lay with rags covering their faces in a road next to an agricultural depot that rebels now use as their base.

"They were killed in fighting on February 2," one insurgent said.

The government forces are not the only ones to have suffered losses during the latest rebel onslaught.

"The last few days of fighting to take Chornukhyne and advance on Debaltseve have been very bloody even for us too," said commander Filin, mentioning Ukrainian army ambushes in the area.

The temperature had fallen to minus 10 degrees and a dozen rebel fighters warmed themselves around a campfire fed with wood from a used ammunition crate.

- 'Permanent shooting' -

Some insurgents came back from reconnaissance missions dressed in white camouflage that allowed them to blend into with the snowy landscape.

Convoys of tanks and trucks carrying fresh fighters, fuel and munitions to the frontline headed along the roads to the village.

One of the rebels who called himself Sotnik said that fighting has been incessant and that the ceasefire negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France did not come into force.

"The shooting here has been permanent. There was never any truce here," he said.

Sotnik, 40, claimed that one of his cousins from Kiev had recently signed up with the Ukrainian army.

"Maybe he is not far from here, on the other side of the frontline," he said.

"There are lots of families in that situation."

One of his comrades recounted how the rebels received an unexpected boost when shelling allowed convicts to flee a nearby prison camp.

"Most of the inmates joined up to fight in the ranks of a (pro-Russian) Cossack battalion in a neighbouring town," said the rebel, who gave his name as Diesel.

© 2015 AFP

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