ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine – Government forces were seen retreating from the battlefield Wednesday as Russia-backed rebels continued their onslaught on the railroad junction of Debaltseve, the epicenter of fighting between the separatist and government troops in eastern Ukraine.
Fierce fighting around the town linking the two major separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk raged on despite a cease-fire deal brokered by European leaders which went into effect on Sunday, to be followed by the withdrawal of heavy weaponry beginning Tuesday. Hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian troops are believed to be trapped in Debaltseve.
Associated Press reporters on the road to the government-controlled town of Artemivsk saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons from Debaltseve on Wednesday morning. Covered in dirt and looking tired, some of them were driving to Artemivsk in trucks while several other men, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot. Angry that they had no received any reinforcement from the government, they said they had to retreat and walk for a whole day.
“We’re very happy to be here,” one of the soldiers told the AP. “We were praying all the time and already said good-bye to our lives a hundred times.” He said they have not been able to get food for days because of the rebel shelling.
Another Ukrainian soldier who introduced himself only as Nikolai said he was not even sure if they were 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.”
Semyon Semenchenko, a Ukrainian volunteer battalion commander and member of parliament, said in a statement on Wednesday that the troops pull-out from Debaltseve “has been planned and organized.” The defence ministry, however, insisted in a statement that the fighting around Debaltseve was continuing.
The separatists said they have taken control of the town and offered the Ukrainian troops the opportunity to surrender and abandon their weapons, a claim Ukraine denied.
Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said in a televised briefing on Wednesday that the rebels launched five artillery strikes on Debaltseve overnight thus “grossly violating the peace accords.”
AP journalists were turned back by rebel forces outside Vuhlehirsk, about 10 kilometres west of Debaltseve, early on Wednesday and were unable to assess the status of the fight. Regular artillery fire, coming from the rebel side, was heard in the area.
Kyiv has admitted that soldiers had been taken prisoner in Debaltseve, but gave no details on how many were seized.
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.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the host of Ukrainian cease-fire talks last week, offered to help negotiate the pullout of Ukrainian troops from Debaltseve.
Lukashenko said in Minsk that he offered earlier on Wednesday to both Ukraine and the rebels to help “stop the conflict in Debaltseve with dignity and pull out” the Ukrainian troops if all parties agreed to his intervention.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit on Budapest on Tuesday, suggested that Ukrainian forces should lay down their arms.
Rebel leaders said on Wednesday that they have begun the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the parts of the frontline where the cease-fire holds. Eduard Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that they are now 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. “And 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, the group responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, have attempted to go to Debaltseve since Sunday but have been blocked by the rebels.
The separatists’ Donetsk News Agency on Wednesday quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko saying that the OSCE will be allowed to visit Debaltseve “soon” once their forces have finished the operation there.