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International 20 February 2015, at 11:06

Key Ukraine town under rebel control, separatists celebrate

Marime Font

For the rebel fighters who seized control of this strategic town, Thursday was a day of jubilation and bragging of victory. The retreating Ukrainian soldiers were grim, stunned and relieved to have escaped with their lives as the scope of their losses became clearer: at least 13 dead and hundreds missing, captured or wounded.

Rebel fighters roamed the debris-littered streets of Debaltseve, laughing, hugging and posing for photos a day after the fall of the furiously contested railway hub. Associated Press journalists found its neighborhoods destroyed and all under the control of the rebels.

On the road out of town, dozens of Ukrainian military vehicles, many riddled with bullet holes and with their windshields smashed, were heading to the government-held city of Artemivsk.


The soldiers inside described weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, followed by a hasty retreat.

"We left under heavy fire, driving on back roads," said a soldier who gave only his first name, Andrei. "As we were leaving, we were attacked by artillery and grenade launchers. We came under repeated attack by tanks and assault groups."

As rebels waved separatist flags, Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader and prominent warlord in the rebel-controlled east, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle captured from Ukrainian troops.

All around lay the wrecked remains of Ukrainian armored vehicles. Rebel fighters, many of them Cossacks, searched through the bunkers and tents of an abandoned military encampment, looking to salvage equipment and clothing left behind.

Two rebel fighters inspected an abandoned tank, declaring it a "gift" from the Ukrainian army. They then grabbed a bloodied blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and ground it into the frozen earth with their boots.

But in a reminder of the dangers, one vehicle carrying Cossacks hit a land mine, killing one rebel fighter and wounding another.

Cossacks, who spearheaded imperial Russia's expansion and helped guard its far-flung outposts, trace their historic roots to both Ukraine and southern Russia. They faced persecution under Bolshevik rule but resurfaced after the 1991 Soviet collapse and are now recognized in Russia as an ethnic group who consider themselves descendants of the czarist-era horsemen.

By Thursday, 90 percent of government forces had been withdrawn, a military spokesman said, though he gave no precise figure. Late Wednesday, President Petro Poroshenko said 2,475 soldiers were safely pulled out.

The official toll stood at 13 soldiers killed, 157 wounded, more than 90 captured and at least 82 missing. But retreating soldiers spoke of many more casualties during a hasty and disorderly withdrawal, and the death toll was likely to rise.

Rebel leaders also claimed the Ukrainian casualties were far higher and bragged about seizing large numbers of heavy weapons abandoned by the government forces.

The capture of Debaltseve, a key railroad junction that straddles the route between the separatists' two main cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, was a significant military victory for the rebels.

However, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the three-week siege had left the town's infrastructure in ruins. "A strategic rail hub has stopped its existence the way it was," he said Thursday in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

The retreating soldiers appeared shell-shocked as they described the harrowing battle.

"Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping. They did this all night," said Andrei, the Ukrainian soldier. "Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave. They did this constantly for three weeks."

The battle for Debaltseve defied a cease-fire for eastern Ukraine that was supposed to go into effect Sunday. While the truce mostly held elsewhere, Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said the rebels had repeatedly shelled a village on the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol over the past 24 hours.

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes since fighting began in April, a month after Russia annexed the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula. Russia denies arming the rebels or supplying fighters, but Western nations and NATO point to satellite pictures of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke Thursday with the Ukrainian and Russian leaders about cease-fire violations and their consequences. The Kremlin confirmed the four leaders spoke by phone and praised the cease-fire deal, saying it has led to "a reduction in the number of civilian casualties."

France and Germany, which oversaw marathon peace talks last week between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, both signaled they were determined to salvage the cease-fire agreement and keep the two sides talking.

The German government said the four leaders had agreed "to stick to the Minsk agreements despite the serious breach of the cease-fire in Debaltseve." It said "immediate concrete steps" were necessary to ensure the truce is fully implemented and heavy weapons are withdrawn.

The warring sides were supposed to pull back their heavy weapons from the front lines beginning Tuesday, but international monitors said they had not seen either doing so.

"We have not observed the withdrawal of heavy weapons, however we have observed and reported on the movement of heavy weapons," said Michael Bociurkiw of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Poroshenko suggested that the European Union deploy a peacekeeping mission to help ensure the observance of the cease-fire, but the EU has remained non-committal and Russia reacted negatively, saying that the OSCE monitors could do the job.

Paris and Berlin appeared to hope that, with the disputed territory of Debaltseve in rebel hands, the cease-fire can now take hold.

A top French official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the ongoing negotiations, described the attitude as "pragmatic," saying continued fighting "was not acceptable to us."

Germany has lowered expectations for the cease-fire in Ukraine.

Merkel told supporters that "Germany and France together, will not ease off on doing everything so that Ukraine can go its way and have its territorial integrity — but we want to do it with Russia, not against Russia."

Analysts said that despite public anger in Kiev over the fall of Debaltseve, an overall cease-fire for eastern Ukraine was probably more important than who controlled one town.

Germany is "more clearly aware than many in Kiev that Ukraine basically needs a cease-fire or a freezing of the conflict more urgently than Moscow," said Gustav Gressel, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Kiev needs to see sooner or later how it gets out of the war."

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