Ukrainian forces are retreating from a key town where rebels appear to have emerged victorious after claiming that hundreds of government soldiers had surrendered or been captured.
President Petro Poroshenko declared that his forces were carrying out a “planned and organised” departure from the town of Debaltseve, which has been under siege by separatists for weeks and saw fierce battles yesterday despite a ceasefire declared on Sunday.
Speaking from a snowy airfield in Kiev before leaving for the frontlines, Mr Poroshenko praised Ukrainian forces, claiming they fulfilled their duty in defending the town and had shown the world “the true face of the bandits and separatists who are supported by Russia.”
About 80 per cent of Ukrainian forces had been withdrawn from Debaltseve with their weapons and another two columns were expected to leave today.
Vladimir Putin had earlier told Ukraine it should let its soldiers lay down their weapons and flee battles against rebels “to save their own lives”.
Separatists claimed hundreds of soldiers had already surrendered or been captured, although the numbers could not be confirmed.
The Russian President, who has denied persistent allegations that his government is arming the separatists, seemed to back the rebels in the battle for Debaltseve.
“I hope that the responsible figures in the Ukrainian leadership will not hinder soldiers in the Ukrainian army from putting down their weapons,” he said.
“If they aren't capable of taking that decision themselves and giving that order, then (I hope) that they won’t prosecute people who want to save their lives and the lives of others.”
He added that he hoped the rebels would allow the Ukrainians to return to their families, once they had surrendered Debaltseve.
Thousands of Ukrainian troops were surrounded yesterday in the strategic railway hub as rebels seized parts of the town.
Gun battles were fought from street to street as mortar fire and rockets rained down on both sides, causing a huge explosion when a gas pipeline was hit.
Reuters journalists near the snowy frontline said artillery rounds were rocking Debaltseve every five seconds yesterday and black smoke was rising skywards as Grad rockets pounded the town.
It was unclear how many civilians are still in the besieged town but the UN expressed its concerns for “a few thousand” people believed to be hiding in cellars, trapped.
Rebels claim the ceasefire announced last week does not apply to Debaltseve, which lies between their two main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, as they have already taken “80 per cent” of it and call it “internal territory” – a claim Ukraine denies.
Eduard Basurin, a rebel leader, said negotiations were under way for 5,000 Ukrainian troops to surrender.
“Hundreds” of government soldiers had been captured and would eventually be released to their families, he claimed. Ukraine admitted its troops had been taken but denied the number was so great.
Despite Mr Putin's public call for surrender, Russia sponsored a resolution adopted by the UN Security Council that called on all sides to implement the peace plan, expressing ”grave concern“ at the violence.
Even while supporting the resolution on Tuesday, the US and other council members spoke with scorn.
American Ambassador Samantha Power called Russia's drafting of the resolution "ironic, to say the least" given it was ”backing an all-out assault“ in Ukraine.
The Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, responded by calling the comments “offensive.”
Hopes that the deal reached last Thursday would end a conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people so far were always slim after a rebel advance in January left a previous ceasefire in tatters.
But EU foreign policy chief Francesca Mogherini refused to concede defeat, acknowledging the battles were “not encouraging” but adding: “As long as there is a signed deal to which the parties still refer as something that needs to be implemented, I will not say that there is a failure.
The Ukrainian government and Nato say the rebel assault on Debaltseve is being reinforced by Russian tanks, artillery and soldiers, while Moscow denies any involvement in the battle for the region termed Novorossiya (New Russia) by Mr Putin and separatists.
American officials said they were "gravely concerned" by the fighting and were monitoring reports of a new influx of Russian military equipment heading to the area.
The US has been considering sending weapons to back Kiev, although the State Department said on Tuesday that getting into a proxy war with Russia was not in the interests of Ukraine or the world.
Mr Putin said he already believed weapons were being sent to the government army.
Additional reporting by agencies
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