Rebels control key Ukraine town

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Published: Friday 20th February 2015 by The News Editor

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For the rebel fighters who seized control of the strategic town Ukraine of Debaltseve, it 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.

On the road out of town, dozens of Ukrainian military vehicles, many riddled with bullet holes and with their windscreens 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.”

As rebels waved separatist flags, Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader and prominent warlord in the rebel-controlled east, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle captured from Ukrainian troops.

All around lay the wrecked remains of Ukrainian armoured 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.

Two rebel fighters inspected an abandoned tank, declaring it a “gift” from the Ukrainian army. They then grabbed a bloodied blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and ground it into the frozen earth with their boots.

But in a reminder of the dangers, one vehicle carrying Cossacks hit a land mine, killing one rebel fighter and wounding another.

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 recognised in Russia as an ethnic group who consider themselves descendants of the czarist-era horsemen.

By yesterday, 90% of government forces had been withdrawn, a military spokesman said, though he gave no precise figure.

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.

Rebel leaders also claimed the Ukrainian casualties were far higher and bragged about seizing large numbers of heavy weapons abandoned by the government forces.

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. “A strategic rail hub has stopped its existence the way it was,” he said.

The battle for Debaltseve defied a ceasefire for eastern Ukraine that was supposed to go into effect on 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.

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes since fighting began in April, a month after Russia annexed the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula.

Russia denies arming the rebels or supplying fighters, but Western nations and Nato point to satellite pictures of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine.

In Paris, French president Francois Hollande said he and German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke yesterday with the Ukrainian and Russian leaders about ceasefire violations and their consequences.

The warring sides were supposed to pull back their heavy weapons from the front lines beginning on Tuesday, but international monitors said they had not seen either doing so.

Paris and Berlin appeared to hope that, with the disputed territory of Debaltseve in rebel hands, the ceasefire can now take hold.

Published: Friday 20th February 2015 by The News Editor

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