Pro-Russian rebels 'continued to fire at retreating Ukrainian forces'

The Ukrainians say 14 soldiers were killed and 172 wounded in the last 24 hours

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The Independent Online

Pro-Russian rebels repeatedly launched missiles and grenades at Ukrainian soldiers as they retreated from the key strategic town of Debaltseve, according to reports from the frontline.

News agency AFP released footage reporting to show rebels loyal to the Russian Federation firing multiple rocket launchers as Ukrainian forces retreated on foot and by truck from the battleground near the besieged town.

That report was backed up by an interview given by a retreating Ukrainian soldier who said he and his men had to run a gauntlet of fire as they left Debaltseve and travelled to the safety of Artemivsk, some 50km away.

The soldier told Al Jazeera, "There are no words to describe it. Along the entire way we were blanketed with shots. They fired at us with machine guns and grenade launchers. They used everything.

"We left Debaltseve around 5am (on Wednesday) and until this morning we were constantly under targeted fire."

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Army, said on Thursday that at least 2,745 soldiers had left Debaltseve, with 14 deaths in the last 24 hours. 172 more were wounded and 82 soldiers were still missing.

He added that Ukrainian Armed Forces had repelled insurgents near Pisky and that Ukrainian positions near Shyrokine had been attacked.

He said that insurgents had violated the ceasefire 253 times from the moment of its introduction and the every Ukrainian soldier has been shelled on average with around 580kg of "deadly metal" during the battle for Debaltseve.

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesperson for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told The Independent that at different times on Wednesday their monitors did hear shelling in the area of Debaltseve, but they could not confirm who was firing as they were not able to access the area.

"We require unfettered and safe and secure access, but the sides did could not guarantee security for us and did not provide access," Bociurkiw said.

Debaltseve, a key strategic town, has witnessed heavy fighting since a ceasefire in the region began at the weekend, with the Russian separatists claiming that the true did not apply to the railway hub.

The president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, argued that the fall of the town was carried out "in a planned and organized manner" as he attempted to cling to any benefits from the retreat.

However, reports continue to suggest that exhausted, dirty Ukrainian soldiers suffered heavy losses during the retreat and that many had to leave the town on foot.

Other reports suggested that the Ukrainians could not get water or food amidst the shelling.

Poroshenko claimed his forces had fulfilled their duty in defending the town and called for UN peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire in the east of the country.

Additional reporting by the AP