Ukraine president says troops have withdrawn from Debaltseve

2015-02-18 15:58

Kiev, Feb 18, 2015 (AFP) -Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday that government forces had withdrawn from the flashpoint town of Debaltseve, where pro-Russian rebels have been battling troops for weeks.

"This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organised withdrawal from Debaltseve. As of now we can say that 80 percent of our units have left," Poroshenko said in an audio message released by his press service.

"We are expecting another two columns (to leave)," he added.

The Ukrainian leader said he had given the order to pull out Tuesday and was now heading to the front line to "meet those who have left Debaltseve".

"These actions have confounded Russia, which only yesterday demanded that Ukrainian soldiers lay down their arms, raise the white flag and surrender," Poroshenko said.

"Despite the fierce artillery bombardments, so far we have information that out of 2,000 Ukrainian troops we have 30 injured."

AFP journalists saw dozens of Ukrainian tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks carrying soldiers driving away from Debaltseve.

The vehicles, carrying haggard-looking, unshaven troops, arrived in the nearby government-held town of Artemivsk, where one soldier confirmed that they had come from Debaltseve.

Ferocious fighting for the key transport hub has raged unabated despite the start of nominal ceasefire between the warring sides on Sunday, with Ukraine and the United States accusing Russia of piling in troops and weapons to spearhead the assault.

Russia and the rebels said that up to 8,000 Ukrainian troops were surroundered in the town but Kiev never officially accepted that its forces were encircled.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had called on Tuesday for Ukraine to let its troops in Debaltseve surrender and told Kiev to admit defeat.

"Obviously it's always bad to lose," Putin said during a visit to Hungary. "But life is life and it still goes on."

The ongoing fighting in Debaltseve had stymied the withdrawal of heavy weapons from along the frontline, the supposed next step in the fragile peace plan inked Thursday after marathon talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

A rebel military official announced just ahead of Poroshenko's statement that the separatists had started pulling back heavy weaponry from other areas along the frontline but this could not be confirmed independently.

os-del/txw

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