Ukrainian troops withdrawing from Debaltseve, Kiev confirms
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Ukraine has pulled most of its troops out of Debaltseve, President Petro Poroshenko confirmed Wednesday, as Russian-backed separatists reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive in the strategic railroad junction in eastern Ukraine.
The army has withdrawn 80 percent of its troops from the town and two more columns have yet to leave, the Ukrainian president said on his official Twitter account.
Poroshenko denied rebel claims that the Ukrainians had been encircled and said the troops were leaving Debaltseve with their weapons and ammunition.
“Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organised and planned manner,” he said in televised comments.
Poroshenko spoke at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to “shake hands” with the soldiers who were pulled out of Debaltseve.
He sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that “laid shame on Russia, which called on the Ukrainian troops yesterday to lay down arms, raise the white flag and surrender".
Ukrainian troops "gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them”, he said.
Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin said hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered in Debaltseve. Russian state-owned television on Wednesday showed images of several dozen Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels.
Russian Channel One showed the rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve. Associated Press reporters saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons Wednesday morning from the town in eastern Ukraine, covered in dirt and looking exhausted. Some were driving to the nearby town of Artemivsk in trucks while several others, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot.
One soldier spoke of heavy government losses in the weeks of fighting for the rail hub, while another said they had not been able to get food or water because of the intense rebel shelling. A third spoke of hunkering down in bunkers for hours, unable to even go to the toilet because of the shelling. They smoked cigarettes in the frigid winter air and gratefully accepted plastic cups of tea given to them by locals.
“We’re very happy to be here,” a soldier told the AP. “We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit to Budapest on Tuesday, had urged Kiev to admit defeat in the contested town, saying “the only choice” of the Ukrainian troops was to “leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused the separatists of refusing to respect the ceasefire agreement and urged Russia “to end support for separatists and to withdraw forces and military equipment from eastern Ukraine”.
Russia has denied supplying the separatists with troops and weapons, while Western nations and Ukraine cite NATO satellite pictures that show Russian weapons moving into east Ukraine.
Army command 'as bad as can be'
The withdrawal attracted fierce criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians as well as from the commanders of volunteer battalions fighting alongside government troops.
Semyon Semenchenko, a battalion commander and a member of parliament, on Facebook accused the military command of betraying the country’s interests in Debaltseve.
“We had enough forces and means,” he said. “The problem is the command and coordination. They are as bad as can be.”
The fierce fighting around Debaltseve, which links the two major rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, had raged on despite a ceasefire deal brokered by European leaders that took effect Sunday.
Some retreating troops said Wednesday they had not received any reinforcements from the government in Debaltseve and had been walking and retreating for a whole day. One Ukrainian soldier who introduced himself only as Nikolai said he was not even sure if his unit was retreating or being rotated out of Debaltseve.
“I don’t know, our commanders didn’t tell us whether it’s retreat or just rotation,” he said. “They just told us to change our positions because our unit had been staying there for quite a long time and we had sustained quite big losses.”
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who negotiated the ceasefire deal last week are expected to talk about its implementation later Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Wednesday accused the Russian-backed rebels in Debaltseve of acting “in clear violation of the ceasefire”.
“Russia and the separatists have to immediately and fully implement the commitments agreed to in Minsk, in line with yesterday’s UN Security Council resolution, starting with the respect of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of all heavy weapons,” Mogherini said in a statement.
In Berlin, the German government condemned the rebel advance on Debaltseve.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert described the onslaught as “a serious strain on the (Minsk ceasefire) agreement as well as hopes for peace in eastern Ukraine”.
Elsewhere in the conflict zone, rebel leaders said Wednesday that they had begun withdrawing heavy weaponry from parts of the front line where the ceasefire was holding. Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that rebels were pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, on the road to the government-controlled port of Mariupol.
“This is the first step,” Basurin said. “We’re not waiting for Ukraine to start pulling back the weaponry together with us.”
Observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, responsible for monitoring the ceasefire, have tried to get to Debaltseve since Sunday but have been blocked by the rebels.
The separatists’ Donetsk News Agency quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko as saying the OSCE will be allowed to visit Debaltseve “soon”.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)