Embattled Debaltseve falls to Ukraine rebels; troops retreat

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Ukraine Peace Deal + Violence Fighting - updated 02/19/2015
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Embattled Debaltseve falls to Ukraine rebels; troops retreat
A Pro-Russian separatist fighter mans a checkpoint near the airport of Donetsk on Febuary 7, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced optimism that a plan being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris could bring an end to the Ukraine conflict. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 24: Pro-Russian separatist stands near the road while pro-Russian separatists withdraw military vehicles from the front line at Donetsk Airport on February 24, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Since 9 A.M. on Tuesday DNR has already taken away 96 units of barreled artillery, jet and self-propelled artillery. (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 24: Pro-Russian separatists withdraw military vehicles from the front line at Donetsk Airport on February 24, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Since 9 A.M. on Tuesday DNR has already taken away 96 units of barreled artillery, jet and self-propelled artillery. (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
A pro-Russian separatist fighter stands guard at Donetsk's Sergey Prokofiev international airport, as shelling continues between Ukrainian army forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters on February 7, 2015. Five civilians and five soldiers were killed in fighting in east Ukraine, government and rebel officials said on February 7, with Kiev accusing pro-Russian separatists of massing forces for fresh offensives. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pro-Russian separatist fighter stands guard at a checkpoint near the airport of Donetsk on Febuary 7, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday voiced optimism that a plan being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris could bring an end to the Ukraine conflict.AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian servicemen, members of trilateral groups of observers, walk along a street in Soledar, Donetsk region, on February 17, 2015. The European Union on February 17, 2015 called for the immediate pull-back of heavy weapons from the frontline in eastern Ukraine and voiced concern about the surge in fighting in a key flashpoint town of Debaltseve. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman stands on top of a KRAZ armoured vehicle close to a car of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Soledar, Donetsk region, on February 17, 2015. The European Union on February 17, 2015 called for the immediate pull-back of heavy weapons from the frontline in eastern Ukraine and voiced concern about the surge in fighting in a key flashpoint town of Debaltseve. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 17: Destroyed Ukrainian military armoured vehicles are seen on the nothern outskirts of Donestk on February 17, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. A ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine and pro-Russian rebel forces has failed to prevent fighting in the nearby town of Debaltseve, where thousands of Ukrainian troops remain and whom rebels claim to have surrounded. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
MYRONIVSKYI, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 17: A gas pipe burns after being struck by shelling on February 17, 2015 in Myronivskyi, Ukraine. A ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine and pro-Russian rebel forces has failed to prevent fighting in the nearby town of Debaltseve, where thousands of Ukrainian troops remain and whom rebels claim to have surrounded. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: An Ukrainian soldier stands next to a destroyed military vehicle of Ukrainian army, near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian soldiers are seen near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian soldiers sit on a military vehicle of Ukrainian army near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSPYNE, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Pro-Russian rebels attend the funerals of four rebel fighters who died on the frontline at the cemetery of Mospyne on February 16, 2015 in Mospyne, Ukraine. The rebels died on the frontline in Lohvynove near Debaltseve one day before the ceasefire . (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: An Ukrainian soldier stands next to a destroyed military vehicle of Ukrainian army, near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian military vehicles of Ukrainian army are seen near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSPYNE, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Graves in the cemetery of Mospyne during the funeral of four rebel fighters killed on the frontline on February 16, 2015 in Mospyne, Ukraine. The rebels died on the frontline in Lohvynove near Debaltseve one day before the ceasefire . (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region, on February 13, 2015. Fighting raged in Ukraine today as the clock ticked down to a ceasefire that will be a first test of Kiev and pro-Russian separatists' committment to a freshly-inked peace plan. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers, called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization, take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region on February 13, 2015. At least 18 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in new artillery shelling just a day after a peace deal was signed to end the 10-month conflict. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms.
Ukrainian reserve officers called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region, on February 13, 2015. Fighting raged in Ukraine today as the clock ticked down to a ceasefire that will be a first test of Kiev and pro-Russian separatists' committment to a freshly-inked peace plan. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region, on February 13, 2015. Fighting raged in Ukraine today as the clock ticked down to a ceasefire that will be a first test of Kiev and pro-Russian separatists' committment to a freshly-inked peace plan. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers, called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization, take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region on February 13, 2015. At least 18 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in new artillery shelling just a day after a peace deal was signed to end the 10-month conflict. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
MISNK, BELARUS - FEBRUARY 11: (L to R) Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko during peace talks over Eastern Ukraine on February 11, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. The European leaders are meeting to discuss a cease-fire in the Ukraine. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emerged from marathon Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms. (Feb. 12)
MISNK, BELARUS - FEBRUARY 11: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (R)during peace talks over Eastern Ukraine on February 11, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. The European leaders are meeting to discuss a cease-fire in the Ukraine. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
Automatic gunfire from a Ukrainian military truck. Government forces have launched a counter offensive near the southeastern port city of Mariupol. They claim to have gained territory from Russian-backed rebels, who want greater independence with what they're calling "people's republics" in the east of the country.
KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 10: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visits Ukraine's military headquarters after shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, a town more than 30 miles away from the front lines, on February 10, 2015. At least 7 killed including 2 soldier and 26 wounded in a rocket attack on Ukraine's military headquarters, local authorities said. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Pro-Russian separatist fighter mans a checkpoint near the airport of Donetsk on Febuary 7, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced optimism that a plan being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris could bring an end to the Ukraine conflict. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. and European leaders threatened new sanctions against Moscow after a missile attack blamed on pro-Russian separatists killed 30 civilians in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Niki Blasina reports.
People lay flowers and set candles on January 24, 2015, during a rally to mourn at a bus stop in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, where 13 people were killed in a trolleybus shelling on January 22. At least 27 people died on January 24, in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ALEXANDER GAYUK (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER GAYUK/AFP/Getty Images)
People light candles on Independence Square in Kiev on 24, 2015 to mourn people who died as a result of shelling in southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ YURY KIRNICHNY (Photo credit should read YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)
People light candles on Independence Square in Kiev on 24, 2015, in mourning for people who died as a result of shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ YURY KIRNICHNY (Photo credit should read YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold placards reading 'I am Mariupol' as they stand beside candles on Independence Square in Kiev on 24, 2015, lit in mourning for people who died as a result of shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ YURY KIRNICHNY (Photo credit should read YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)
People lay tributes for victims of a shelling at a bus stop in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, during a rally on January 24, 2015. Eight civilians died in a trolleybus shelling in Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, separatist and Kiev officials said on January 23, revising down an earlier toll. The trolleybus shelling was among the bloodiest incidents involving civilians in recent months in a conflict that has devastated the ex-Soviet republic's industrial heartland and brought Ukraine's economy to its knees. AFP PHOTO/ALEXANDER GAYUK (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER GAYUK/AFP/Getty Images)
People set candles on Independence Square in Kiev on January 24, 2015 in memory of people who died during shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died on January 24 in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine (AP) - After weeks of relentless fighting, the embattled Ukrainian rail hub of Debaltseve fell Wednesday to Russia-backed separatists, who hoisted a flag in triumph over the town. The Ukrainian president confirmed that he had ordered troops to pull out and the rebels reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive.

Associated Press reporters saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons Wednesday 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 told the AP. "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. Russian state-owned television also showed images of several dozen captured Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels.

Semyon Semenchenko, a volunteer battalion commander and a member of the Ukrainian parliament who was highly critical of the government's decision to retreat, said in a statement that 167 injured soldiers have been evacuated from Debaltseve. He mentioned a high death toll and said some bodies had been left behind but did not give specific numbers.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that "laid shame on Russia." He denied reports of large Ukrainian casualties and rebel claims of many soldiers captured, saying troops were leaving Debaltseve with their weapons and ammunition. He said the army had withdrawn 80 percent of its troops from the town by Wednesday morning and two more columns had yet to leave.

"Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner," he said in televised comments.

"The Ukrainian troops... gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them," Poroshenko said at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to "shake the hands" of the soldiers leaving Debaltseve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit Tuesday to Budapest, 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."

Despite reports of Ukrainian forces giving up the fight for Debaltseve, rebel artillery and rocket fire were still being shot at the town at regular intervals Wednesday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused the separatists of refusing to respect a cease-fire agreement 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.

The withdrawal from Debaltseve attracted fierce criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians. Semenchenko, the battalion commander, on Facebook 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 coordination. They are as bad as can be."

The fierce fighting around Debaltseve, which links the two major separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, had raged on despite a cease-fire deal brokered by European leaders which took effect Sunday.

Some retreating troops said Wednesday they had not received any reinforcements in Debaltseve from the government and had been walking for a whole day. One Ukrainian soldier who introduced himself only as Nikolai said he was not even sure if his unit was retreating or being rotated elsewhere.

"I don't know. Our commanders didn't tell us whether it's a retreat or just a rotation," he said. "They just told us to change our positions because our unit had been staying there for quite a long time and we had sustained quite big losses."

At a barricade outside the town of Vuhlehirsk, reporters were barred from the road into Debaltseve by a group of fighters. Some of the men identified themselves as coming from Russia's Far East and bore the typical Asiatic features of native people there.

Viktor Ponosov, a rebel commander at the checkpoint, said Ukrainian forces appeared to have run out of ammunition and food.

"We have heard that they are calling their relatives and friends from within the encirclement and saying to them: 'Please help us, because they are killing us and destroying us,'" Ponosov said.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who negotiated the cease-fire deal that was supposed to take effect Sunday, are expected to talk about its implementation later Wednesday.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini accused the rebels in Debaltseve of acting "in clear violation of the cease-fire."

"Russia and the separatists have to immediately and fully implement the commitments agreed to in Minsk, in line with yesterday's U.N. Security Council resolution, starting with the respect of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of all heavy weapons," Mogherini said in a statement Wednesday.

In Berlin, the German government also condemned rebels' advance on Debaltseve. Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert described the onslaught as "a serious strain on the (Minsk cease-fire) agreement as well as hopes for peace in eastern Ukraine."

Elsewhere in the conflict zone, rebel leaders said they had begun withdrawing heavy weaponry Wednesday from parts of the front line where the cease-fire was holding. Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that rebels were pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, on the road to the government-controlled port of Mariupol.

"This is the first step," Basurin said. "We're not waiting for Ukraine to start pulling back the weaponry together with us."

Observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, have been blocked from Debaltseve by the rebels for days. The separatists' Donetsk News Agency quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko, however, as saying the OSCE will be allowed to visit "soon."

___

Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Peter Leonard in Vuhlehirsk, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.


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