REBEL fighters, many of them Cossacks, roamed the streets of Debaltseve yesterday a day after Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from the besieged town. The mood was celebratory, with fighters laughing, hugging each other and posing for photographs.
On the road out of town, dozens of Ukrainian military vehicles were retreating to the government-held town of Artemivsk. Many were riddled with bullet holes or had their windshields destroyed. Soldiers in them spoke of enduring weeks of rebel shelling, barrages designed to annihilate them.
“Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping,” a Ukrainian soldier named Andrei said, sitting in his truck outside Artemivsk. “They did this all night. Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave. They did this constantly for three weeks.”
As rebels waved separatist flags in Debaltseve, Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader and warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle captured from Ukrainian troops.
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All around lay the wrecked remains of Ukrainian armoured vehicles. An army encampment near a crossroads lay deserted. Rebel fighters searched through its bunkers and abandoned tents, looking to salvage equipment and clothing left behind by the quickly retreating troops.
Two rebel fighters inspected a tank left behind by Ukrainians, what they called a “gift” from the government troops. They then grabbed a bloodied blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag lying next to the tank and ground it into the frozen earth with their boots. Civilians milled about on debris-littered streets in devastated residential areas, some thanking the rebel fighters.
But in a reminder of the dangers, one car carrying Cossacks hit a landmine, killing one and injuring another. Cossacks are members of a semi-military group that traditionally guarded the far-flung outposts of Russia’s empire.
Ukrainian troops began abandoning Debaltseve on Wednesday after weeks of heavy fighting, and by yesterday more than 90 per cent had been withdrawn. Capturing the town is a significant victory for the rebels because of its railway junction that straddles the direct route between Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatists’ two main cities.
Ukraine’s military general staff said 13 soldiers were killed and 157 wounded by artillery fire during the withdrawal.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the siege left the town in ruins. “A strategic rail hub has stopped its existence the way it was,” he said yesterday in Kiev.
In Paris, French president François Hollande said he and German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke yesterday to Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – about ceasefire violations and their consequences. The Kremlin said the four spoke by phone and praised the ceasefire deal.