Ukrainian forces are pulling out of the strategic eastern city of Debaltseve, President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday.
“This morning the armed forces and the national guard completed the planned and organized withdrawal from Debaltseve,” Poroshenko said, according to the Interfax Ukraine news agency.
He added that 80 per cent of the troops had left the embattled city. Poroshenko was speaking at Kiev airport, from where he was flying to visit troops in the conflict zone.
Some 5,000 Ukrainian troops have been encircled in the city, which serves a vital transport hub and has been controlled by government forces through much of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
However, Poroshenko denied that there had been a siege. “Debaltseve was under our control, there was no encirclement,” he said.
He called on the European Union and the US to give a tough reaction to “Russia’s brutal violation” of the latest Minsk peace accord, which stipulated a ceasefire that was to take hold last Sunday. “We will prepare organized and coordinated action,” he said.
The rebels and Russia argue that Debaltseve is not affected by the ceasefire agreement because it is located inside rebel-held territory.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated this line on Wednesday. Speaking in Moscow, he warned Kiev and the West against using Debaltseve as a pretext to tear up the Minsk agreement.
“Such attempts happened earlier and we don’t want to see them repeated, he said.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the separatists were acting in “clear violation” of the Minsk agreement and demanded that they stop all military activities.
“The EU stands ready to take appropriate action,” if the violations continue, Mogherini said in Riga.
According to Ukrainian media reports, the withdrawal from Debaltseve began before dawn on Wednesday. Many soldiers left their positions on foot, while coming under fire from separatists, the Hromadske television channel reported.
A senior separatist leader said that hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had given themselves up. Among them are many injured, Maxim Leshchenko said in Donetsk, the Interfax news agency reported.
Another militia commander, Vladislav Brig, told Moscow’s Kommersant FM radio that the separatists are letting the soldiers pass into government-controlled territory.
“Around 1,000 have already passed through a corridor,” he said.
The separatists also said that they had begun withdrawing heavy weapons in compliance with last week’s ceasefire agreement.
“Five 152-milimetre howitzers are being withdrawn from the Yelenovka district,” senior militia leader Eduard Basurin was quoted as saying by the rebel-run Donetsk News Agency.
Basurin was referring to Olenivka, a village south of Donetsk, relatively far from the strategic city of Debaltseve, the site of intense fighting in spite of the truce.
Although the accord signed in Minsk stipulates that both separatists and government troops need to withdraw heavy weapons at least two days after the start of the ceasefire, both sides had refused to start as they traded blame for its violation. SAPA