AFTER weeks of relentless fighting, the embattled Ukrainian rail hub of Debaltseve fell yesterday to Russian-backed separatists, who hoisted a flag in triumph over the town.
The Ukrainian president confirmed he had ordered troops to pull out and the rebels reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive.
Witnesses saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons yesterday morning from the town in eastern Ukraine, covered in dirt and looking exhausted. Some were driving to the nearby town of Artemivsk in trucks while several others, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot.
One soldier spoke of heavy government losses, while another said they had not been able to get food or water because of the intense rebel shelling. A third spoke of hunkering down in bunkers for hours, unable to even go to the toilet because of the shelling. They smoked cigarettes in the frigid winter air and gratefully accepted plastic cups of tea given to them by locals.
“We’re very happy to be here,” the hungry soldier said. “We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times.”
Russian Channel One showed the rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve.
By yesterday morning, the army had withdrawn 80 per cent of its troops from the town, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said. He denied claims by the rebels that the Ukrainians were surrounded and said the troops were leaving with their weapons and ammunition.
“Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organised and planned manner,” he said.
Mr Poroshenko denied reports of large Ukrainian casualties and hundreds of soldiers captured. On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin had urged Kiev to admit defeat in the contested town, saying “the only choice” of the Ukrainian troops was to “leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender”.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg accused the separatists of refusing to respect a ceasefire and urged Russia “to end support for separatists and to withdraw forces and military equipment from eastern Ukraine”. Russia has denied supplying the separatists with troops and weapons – a claim scoffed at by western nations and Ukraine, who point to Nato satellite pictures of Russian weapons in eastern Ukraine.
Russian television showed images yesterday of dozens of Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels. The withdrawal attracted criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians and commanders of battalions fighting alongside government troops.
Semyon Semenchenko, a battalion commander, accused the military command of betraying the country’s interests in Debaltseve. “We had enough forces and means,” he said. “The problem is the command and co-ordination.”
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who negotiated the ceasefire deal last week were expected to talk about its implementation yesterday.