As Ukraine’s government finally sat down with pro-Russian separatists for peace talks in Minsk yesterday, the people of Debaltseve were gathering in their town hall for evacuation as fire from heavy-calibre weapons boomed around them.
Parts of the east-Ukrainian town have been without power, water or gas for days, and it is now besieged on three sides by rebel forces, whose recent offensive destroyed hopes that September’s peace accord would mark an end to the worst of the fighting. Any potential for progress yesterday appeared stymied as the meeting in Minsk broke up after four hours, with the Ukrainian representative quoted as accusing the separatists of undermining the talks.
In Debaltseve, Vyacheslav Abroskin, regional head of police, said the decision to evacuate came amid “ceaseless artillery strikes”, and “volunteers and police are travelling under fire to evacuate entire families”. Twelve civilians have been killed by shelling, he said, and almost 1,000 are understood to have left the town.
Ukraine’s defence minister, Stepan Poltorak, also announced yesterday the loss of a further 15 soldiers in clashes across the east of the country.
Debaltseve is on the highway linking Donetsk with the other main rebel stronghold of Luhansk and is a vital railway link for goods from Russia, which Kiev accuses of arming the separatists. Separatists also continue to focus forces on Mariupol, in the south-east of the country.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
The continued violence underlined the urgency of the talks in the Belarussian capital between the Ukrainian envoy, separatist officials, and a representative from Moscow. The negotiations are arranged by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and formally backed by Moscow. However, the Ukrainian envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, was quoted by Interfax as saying that the two separatist officials present had delivered ultimatums and refused “to discuss a plan of measures for a quick ceasefire and a pull-back of heavy weapons”.
Mr Kuchma had told reporters that: “Our main goal is to ensure the [September] agreement is implemented.” Separatists, however, insist any new border outlining rebel-held areas should run along the current front line, giving them an area 200 square miles larger than agreed last year.
In a phone conference between Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, François Hollande, yesterday, the joint hope was expressed that ending the violence would be the central issue of the conference, the Kremlin said.
Talks initially scheduled to be held on Friday were called off following disagreements over who should represent the rebel camp.
More than 5,100 people have been killed in Ukraine and 900,000 displaced since the conflict erupted last April after the ousting of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A month’s relative calm following September’s deal was shattered by a separatist offensive in early January.
Meanwhile, in Debaltseve, the old and infirm were being lifted into packed evacuation buses. Charity worker Andrei Vasilyev told the Associated Press: “This is not their war, after all.”Reuse content