Troops retreat from besieged Ukraine town

Feb 18, 2015, 6:33 AM EST
A pro-Russian rebel carries ammunition to be loaded onto a truck near the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve on February 17, 2015.
AFP/Getty Images

Government forces started pulling out of a town in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday after a fierce assault by Russian-backed separatists that Europe said violated a crumbling ceasefire, Reuters writes.

President Petro Poroshenko said before flying to the town of Debaltseve that more than 80 percent of his troops in the rail hub had already left following a heavy bombardment and street-by-street fighting despite the truce that took effect on Sunday.

Rebels say the ceasefire, negotiated by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France at a summit in Belarus last week, does not apply to Debaltseve, which links the two rebel-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. Poroshenko and the West say the rebel assault is being reinforced by Russian tanks, artillery and soldiers, though Moscow denies sending forces to join the battle for a region that President Vladimir Putin has called "New Russia".

"The actions by the Russia-backed separatists in Debaltseve are a clear violation of the ceasefire," European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Brussels, stepping up Western criticism of the rebel offensive on Debaltseve.

"The EU stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue," she said, making an apparent threat of further economic sanctions on Moscow.

A German government spokesman said the Minsk agreement had been damaged though it made sense to try to implement it. Putin showed no sign of backing down over Ukraine on Tuesday evening, when he urged Kiev's pro-Western leaders to let their soldiers surrender to avoid more bloodshed.

Hours later, the Ukrainian troop withdrawal was under way. A Reuters witness saw weary Ukrainian troops, their faces blackened, some in columns, some in cars, arriving in Artemivsk, about 30 km (20 miles) north of Debaltseve.

Pro-Kiev commanders said some forces had pulled out but there were reports of continued fighting in the town. A Reuters correspondent near Debaltseve saw black smoke rising over the town and heard loud blasts hours after the withdrawal began.

The withdrawal comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine's troops in Debaltseve to surrender, the BBC reports. Putin is due to speak by telephone later to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande and President Poroshenko, according to the French government.

International observers monitoring the truce have been unable to enter the town. It has become a key prize for rebels and government forces, as it sits on a strategic railway line linking rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.

Most of its 25,000 population has been evacuated but about 7,000 civilians are still believed trapped by the fighting.