Debaltseve under rebel control, as EU leaders try to salvage truce

Ukrainian forces began abandoning Debaltseve on Wednesday after weeks of heavy fighting against Russia-backed separatists

AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File

AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine – Associated Press journalists in eastern Ukraine say Debaltseve appears to be largely under the control rebels a day after Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from the besieged town.

In a drive around about half the town on Thursday, all neighbourhoods were under the control of rebel fighters, most of them appearing to be Cossacks.

Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader who has been a prominent warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, was seen driving around in a Humvee-like vehicle that had been captured from Ukrainian troops.

Cossack fighters laughed, hugged each other and posed for photos.

But one car carrying Cossacks hit a land mine about 200 metres from the journalists, killing one Cossack and injuring one other.

The French president says he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have spoken with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia about the cease-fire that has been faltering amid fierce fighting over the eastern town of Debaltseve.

Ukrainian forces began abandoning Debaltseve on Wednesday after weeks of heavy fighting against Russia-backed separatists. Control of the town is a significant strategic gain for the rebels because it is a railway junction and straddles the most direct route between the separatist region’s two major cities.

French President Francois Hollande says the phone call Thursday morning touched upon cease-fire violations and their consequences.

In Britain, the U.K.’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Wednesday Russia poses a “real and present danger” to European security and that tensions between Moscow and NATO are “warming up.”

Fallon said that NATO must be prepared for Russian President Vladimir Putin to threaten former Soviet bloc countries including Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.

The comments made to reporters during a trip to Sierra Leone were among the harshest made by senior British officials in recent months.

The Ministry of Defence said Thursday that Royal Air Force jets had escorted Russian bombers away from British airspace after they approached Wednesday. There has been an increase in Russian probing of British defences recently.

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