18 Feb 2015

Ukrainian soldiers withdraw from strategic Debaltseve

As fighting continues in the strategic rail hub Debaltseve, despite a ceasefire, the Ukrainian authorities say their troop withdrawal is “planned and organised”, not a surrender.

Ukrainian troops withdrawing from Debaltseve to Ukrainian town of Artemivsk

Separatist rebels, believed to be backed by Russia, fought into Debaltseve on Tuesday despite the ceasefire which came into effect on Sunday. As they did so, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of arming the rebels, said Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve should surrender.

Speaking on Wenesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters in Lisbon that Putin’s latest comments on Debaltseve were: “absolutely not in the spirit of what was agreed last week” at peace talks in Minsk.

Mr Hammond said the comments gave away “Russia’s true intentions”, saying that if the internationally brokered ceasefire in Ukraine breaks down, Europe should consider extending its sanctions against Moscow.

Debaltseve withdrawal

On Wednesday Ukraine’s President Poroshenko announced that 80 per cent of Ukrainian soldiers had left the town, and that two more columns were set to withdraw troops and weaponry.

Earlier in the day Semen Semenchenko, head of a pro-government paramilitary battalion said, said on Facebook the withdrawal of forces was taking place “in a planned and organised way”.

He said separatist rebels had been trying to “cut the roads and prevent the exit of troops”.

Read more: Alex Thomson in Ukraine on the gruesome toll being paid by civilians

The separatists had argued Sunday’s ceasefire did not apply to Debaltseve, and fighting was reported to be ongoing in the town as the withdrawal was taking place.

Mass ‘surrender’

The pro-Russian separatists, claimed that “hundreds” of Ukrainian soldiers were surrendering their weapons.

“In Debaltseve there is a massive surrender of weapons by (Ukrainian) forces. These people number in the hundreds,” separatist press service DAN quoted Maksim Leshchenko, a senior official in the Donetsk People’s Republic, as saying.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference on Wednesday “The ceasefire is being observed along practically the entire frontline and in a few regions there is a readiness – at least the militia announced it publicly – to withdraw heavy weapons. The exception is the Debaltseve ‘cauldron’.”

Mr Semenchenko warned: “This war will not end in Debaltseve. Under cover of the Minsk Agreements, Putin will destroy more and more of our people and seize our positions.”