Debaltseve under rebel control, Cossacks predominate
Debaltseve, Ukraine — Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine said the truce agreed to last week must be enforced after a rebel offensive pushed government troops out of the strategic town Debaltseve and leaders in Kiev called for peacekeepers.
The battle 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.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and presidents Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko “agreed to stand by the Minsk agreement despite the grave breach of the cease-fire in Debaltseve,” according to a German government statement.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Bloomberg News contributed.