Thu, Feb 19, 2015 - Page 1 News List

Ukraine withdraws its forces from Debaltseve

CONDEMNATION:A top EU official said the rebel offensive against the city was a ‘clear violation’ of a ceasefire and demanded that the separatists stop all military activities

AFP, ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine

Ukrainian servicemen wave as they ride on a tank leaving the area around the eastern transport hub of Debaltseve yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Ukrainian troops yesterday pulled out of the hotspot eastern town of Debaltseve after it was stormed by pro-Russian rebels in what the EU said was a “clear violation” of an internationally backed truce.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said 80 percent of the thousands of soldiers in the town — a strategic railway hub sandwiched between the two main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk — had withdrawn.

The rebels’ assault on Debaltseve dealt a bad blow to the European-brokered truce agreed by all sides last week in a bid to quell a 10-month conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people.

Western countries blamed the persistent violence on Russia. They say Moscow is cynically playing with the truce — which won unanimous backing from the UN Security Council on Tuesday — to keep Ukraine destabilized.

“The actions by the Russia-backed separatists in Debaltseve are a clear violation of the ceasefire,” EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

“The separatists must stop all military activities,” she said, adding that safe passage for all who wanted to leave the area must be ensured.

The EU and Canada this week ratcheted up sanctions on Russia over its perceived military role in the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who repeatedly denies directly helping the insurgency, on Tuesday urged the Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve to surrender.

A rebel military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, told Russian television yesterday that more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers had given themselves up to the insurgents, the Interfax news agency reported.

A regional deputy police chief in Debaltseve, Ilya Kiva, said by telephone that some soldiers were taken prisoner, but would not say how many.

Kiva confirmed the soldiers’ evacuation, but added that some “street fighting continues.”

Amnesty International has expressed concern about the treatment of prisoners taken in the Ukraine conflict, noting brutality by both sides.

An estimated 5,000 civilians are thought to have been trapped in the town, with little water or food.

Journalists, and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe officials tasked with monitoring the ceasefire, have been barred from Debaltseve by the rebels surrounding it and were therefore unable to verify the situation.

Poroshenko, who went to visit the frontline yesterday, said the troop pull-out from the town was “a planned and organized withdrawal” and that, “from 2,000 soldiers, we have 30 who are wounded.”

He said hostilities in Debaltseve “demonstrate to the world the true face of the bandit separatists supported by Russia” and reiterated a call for the US and EU to get “tough” with Moscow.

The US White House issued a statement that “strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces” and warned that “the costs to Russia will rise” if the truce is further degraded.

Germany condemned the rebel offensive against Debaltseve as a “heavy strain” on hopes for peace.

Berlin “strongly condemns the military actions of the separatists in Debaltseve,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said, calling it a “major violation” of the latest truce deal.

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