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9 dead as shelling increases in eastern Ukraine

August 18, 2015

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — A night-long artillery exchange in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Russia-backed rebels claimed nine lives on Monday, casting doubt on the already shaky cease-fire.

The fighting between Russia-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government troops in the country’s industrial heartland eased after a truce was signed in February. But despite pledges to withdraw heavy caliber weapons from the front lines, both sides seem to be engaged in recent heavy fighting.

The conflict has killed an estimated 6,400 people since April 2014, according to the United Nations. The rebel mouthpiece Donetsk News Agency said artillery fire killed three people in a front line town of Horlivka and two in the rebel capital of Donetsk. Ukrainian officials reported two civilian deaths on their side, in a suburb of Mariupol on the Black Sea. The Ukrainian Security and Defense Council also reported two troops killed and six injured overnight.

The shelling on Monday came after failed talks between Ukraine, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which were supposed to agree on further steps to withdraw weaponry.

An Associated Press reporter in Donetsk witnessed weaponry on the move in the past few days while salvos of incoming and outgoing Grad rockets were frequently heard. President Vladimir Putin, who met representatives of various ethnic communities in the Russia-occupied Crimea on Monday, did not comment on the recent shelling. But he used the opportunity to claim that the current Ukrainian government is not free to make its own decisions because the country “is being managed from the outside.”

Putin has alleged that Kiev’s decisions are heavily influenced by Western powers including the United States. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday accused the Ukrainian government in Kiev of derailing the recent talks on withdrawal. Lavrov said the uptick in shelling could be the beginning of a new Ukrainian offensive.

“We’re worried about events of the recent days, which look very much like preparation for fresh hostilities,” he said. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that there was no mistaking who was responsible for the recent increase in attacks.

“Russia and the separatists are launching these attacks, just as they escalated the conflict last August,” he said. “Efforts by Russia and separatists to grab more territory will be met with further costs.”

OSCE observers warned Saturday about heavy weaponry that has gone missing after it was withdrawn from the front lines. The OSCE monitors were denied access to two locations in rebel-held areas where heavy caliber weapons were supposed to be kept. They were told at one location that 11 Grad multiple rocket launchers had been taken to Donetsk.

Eastern Ukraine tense after outbreak of fighting

June 04, 2015

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Separatist and government troops in east Ukraine stood nervously poised hundreds of meters apart Thursday in the wake of bloody battle that has threatened to demolish what remains of the brittle cease-fire there.

Underscoring anxieties in the Ukrainian capital, President Petro Poroshenko warned of a possible large-scale offensive by separatist forces following the violence on the western fringe of the rebel citadel, Donetsk.

But the mood among rebel combatants huddled in a wooded base just beyond the Donetsk suburb of Marinka, where Wednesday’s fighting was centered, suggested only frustration at the lack of a clear battle plan.

“We can’t just sit here in trenches. I think we should only go forward, forward and forward,” one separatist fighter, who identified himself by his nom de guerre Abaza, told The Associated Press. In the dug-out where Abaza stood, flies clustered over a pool of blood where a wounded militiaman was given emergency treatment the day before.

Rebels in Donetsk now appear to be standing down following the clash. An AP reporter who visited Marinka briefly Thursday observed that it appeared to be under the control of Ukrainian government troops, who said they were performing mop-up operations.

Even the official tally of fighters killed attests to the battle for Marinka being the biggest that east Ukraine has seen since February, when an internationally brokered armistice was signed. Ukraine says five of its servicemen died in combat Wednesday, four of them in or around Marinka. Eduard Basurin, a separatist spokesman, said 14 rebel fighters and five civilians were killed by Ukrainian fire during the day, but provided no details.

Rebel fighters admit privately, however, that they likely lost dozens of men. Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko claimed about 80 rebels were killed. The task of monitoring what is looking like an increasingly hollow cease-fire lies with a mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe. A special report hastily compiled by the OSCE after Wednesday’s fighting strongly suggests the violence was the result of a rebel initiative.

Observers saw at least multiple armored vehicles moving west through Donetsk on the eve of the battle. OSCE reported hearing around 100 outgoing artillery rounds fired at daybreak from a location within separatist-held territory. More heavy fire followed throughout the day.

Rebels are sticking to their story, however, and insist they were acting solely in defense against a Ukrainian assault. Their foray into Marinka and their temporary capture of several buildings, including the local hospital, was merely a counterattack, they said.

“We pushed them as far as we could, then we held our positions, then we retreated,” said a rebel commander, who identified himself by the call-sign Dikiy. “There was a violent fight, a heavy fight, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

OSCE mission spokesman Michael Bociurkiw urged all sides in the conflict to “exercise maximum restraint.” Bociurkiw also told reporters that observers in recent days had found that some heavy weapons which had been pulled back by both sides were missing from the areas where they were being stored.

“This suggests non-compliance” with the cease-fire accord, which requires both sides to pull back large weapons in order to create a buffer zone, Bociurkiw said. An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw two Grad missile launchers driving toward the government-controlled town of Artemivsk. Under the cease-fire accord, such weapons were to be withdrawn from that area.

The Ukrainian military freely admits that it used heavy arms in its effort to retain Marinka, but said it was left with no choice. A part of their firepower landed a direct strike on the base from which rebel infantry mounted their offensive. The converted stables set in a copse just within the limits of Donetsk were still smoldering Thursday afternoon.

Several of the fighters — many among them from Russia — complained wearily that their travel documents were among the personal possessions consumed in the blaze. Russia has strongly denied sending weapons or troops to back the rebels, despite a broad array of evidence indicating otherwise.

Asked if President Vladimir Putin could again seek the parliament’s permission for using Russian troops abroad as he did early in the Ukrainian crisis, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Putin has the right, but emphasized the need to fulfill the cease-fire agreement and avoid steps aimed at escalation of tensions.

Despite fears of a possible full-blown resumption of combat, offensives reverted Thursday to the sporadic shelling that has become a hallmark of the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed more than 6,400 lives since April 2014.

Vyacheslav Abroskin, the police chief for the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region, said in a Facebook statement that rebels shelled the town of Avdiivka just north of the city of Donetsk. He said an unspecified number of civilians were wounded.

The violence has elicited an international chorus of concern. While Moscow pins the blame on Ukraine, the West has been united in its criticism of the rebels and, by extension, Russia. “This escalation followed the movement of a large amount of heavy weapons towards the contact line by the Russia-backed separatists,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. “Renewed intense fighting risks unleashing a new spiral of violence and human suffering.”

The U.N. Security Council scheduled an open meeting Friday morning on the latest developments at the request of Lithuania, a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government.

Yevgeny Maloletka in Marinka, Dmitry Vlasov in Kiev, Lorne Cooke in Brussels, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, contributed to this report.

Fighting picks up in war-torn eastern Ukraine

April 13, 2015

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Fighting has picked up in eastern Ukraine after more than a month of relative calm, as diplomats gathered in Berlin on Monday to discuss the country’s crisis.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Sunday that its mission observed an intense clash with the use of tanks and heavy artillery as well as grenade launchers and mortars in the north of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

On Sunday alone, the OSCE recorded at least 1,166 explosions, caused mainly by artillery and mortar shell strikes in northern Donetsk as well as on its outskirts including the airport, now obliterated by fighting.

The OSCE also reported intense mortar fire outside the village of Shyrokyne, by the Azov Sea, but said its representatives were repeatedly barred from accessing the village on Sunday. Mortar fire was also heard at night and in the morning on Monday in central Donetsk.

Rebel officials as well as Ukrainian and Russian colonels in charge of monitoring the cease-fire went early Monday afternoon to the northern outskirts of Donetsk, a scene of heavy fighting Sunday night.

The rebels told reporters they took captive a Ukrainian soldier and showed the body of another Ukrainian soldier. Intermittent shelling and exchanges of machine gun fire were heard from what appeared to be half a mile from the scene.

A rebel with the nom de guerre Monakh told The Associated Press that one rebel has been killed and five more injured in fighting in the north of Donetsk. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, military spokesman for the Ukrainian presidential administration, told reporters at noon on Monday that one Ukrainian soldier was killed and six wounded in the previous 24 hours.

The military conflict between Russian-backed rebels and government forces has killed more than 6,000 but had largely subsided since the cease-fire was announced in February and some heavy weaponry withdrawn.

Both the OSCE and Ukrainian officials said they had witnessed shelling from heavy weaponry that was supposed to have been withdrawn from the front line. Col. Andriy Lishchynskyi, a Ukrainian representative for monitoring the cease-fire in the east, blamed the clashes on “a highly emotional state and personal animosity” between the fighters on both sides, according to the Interfax news agency.

Rebels and government forces are still separated only by hundreds of meters at some sections of the front line. Foreign policy chiefs from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are meeting to discuss the crisis later on Monday.

Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign ministry’s special envoy, in a Twitter post on Monday described the fighting in the area as “setting the stage for another act of a policy drama that will be playing in Berlin today.”

In an indication that hostilities are picking up in the region, the rebel Donetsk News Agency reported on Monday that the number of injured fighters tripled over the weekend compared with previous weeks.

Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.

Clashes rage in Ukrainian town, making mockery of truce

March 23, 2015

SHYROKYNE, Ukraine (AP) — To reach rear-guard government positions in the seaside town of Shyrokyne, Ukrainian soldiers gingerly wind their off-roaders through private gardens hugging a precipice along the Azov Sea.

The truce announced in mid-February has never taken here, so traveling by the main roads is too dangerous. Government and Russian-backed separatist forces face off in daily gun and artillery battles across an unseen line cutting through the town. The skirmishes are fierce, but contained — for now. Still, the enduring unrest arouses deep anxieties that a conflict which has already claimed more than 6,000 lives in eastern Ukraine could flare up again across the entire 450-kilometer (280-mile) front line.

Shyrokyne itself is not much of a prize. It is the industrial port city of Mariupol, 10 kilometers (6 miles) further west, that Ukrainian forces want to defend from the rebels at all costs. Residents and government troops alike believe the separatists’ ultimate aim is to take Mariupol — and eventually create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which Russia annexed last March. Crimea has no physical link to Russian territory now and a bridge being discussed is years away from completion.

Government forces in Shyrokyne are only truly at ease behind three defensive lines separating them from the heat of fighting in the center. At a makeshift garrison installed there, on the grounds of a restaurant near the shore, two tanks stood parked Sunday under a striped awning.

Several hundred meters away, mortar shells landing in the sea sprayed up columns of water. “They are hurling anti-tank shells at the lighthouse. Another one just came this way,” said a bearded, barrel-chested fighter with the government’s Azov Battalion who gave only his nom de guerre, Al.

As reports came that two enemy tanks had been spotted, Al’s thoughts turned to the combat ahead. “It is all about to start,” he said. To proceed closer to the area where the battle is fiercest, soldiers abandon their cars and race on foot toward a school, climbing through a hole in the fence. The asphalt on the road had been torn up by explosives, so only armored vehicles could get through with ease.

The responsibility for defending Shyrokyne is shared between the Azov and Donbass battalions, who take weekly turns to serve in the town. Coordination is sometimes poor, however. As Azov troops jogged for cover behind the school Sunday, one soldier shouted: “What are you doing? Are you crazy running like that? There are booby traps there.”

Another soldier corrected him. “Nah, the booby traps are over there,” he said, waving his hand vaguely to the left. “The Donbass guys put them there.” Inside the school, children’s drawings still decorated the walls. One man fried sausages and another chowed down on boiled oats as a mobile phone blared out music by a Russian death metal band. Underfoot, amid the spent bullet cartridges and shrapnel, students’ art collages lay covered in fallen plaster.

As the sound of mortars grew more intense, all the men ducked inside for cover. “There they go, they’ve started again,” said an Azov spotter with the nickname Mathematician. A cease-fire between Ukrainian and rebel forces was forged after marathon negotiations between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France on Feb. 12. Under the truce, fighting was supposed to stop and heavy weapons were to be pulled back from the front line. Responsibility for verifying the cease-fire lies with monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Mathematician said the rebels always wait for the OSCE teams to leave before resuming their attacks. “As soon as the OSCE leaves, the firing starts,” he said. Separatists accuse Ukrainian forces of similar deviousness, and it’s hard to know definitely even at the front line who started any specific round of firing.

The head of the OSCE monitoring mission on Monday demanded that his teams be granted secure access to Shyrokyne. “Both sides in this area continue to violate numerous provisions of the (cease-fire) agreements, including those related to cessation of fire, prohibition of attacking moves, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and deployment of (airborne drones),” said Ertugrul Apakan.

Later on Sunday afternoon, sounds resembling outgoing mortars could be heard from a nearby field. Soldiers refused to give an AP reporter access to the area. “We don’t have any mortars,” Mathematician said, smiling. “They only allow us to have small arms. But when they (rebels) get really brazen, we call in support and flatten them.”

Many in the Azov Battalion have unabashed Ukrainian nationalist sympathies, prompting rebels to label them neo-fascists. From time to time, Azov fighters in Shyrokyne greeted one another with ironic Roman salutes and then grinned at their own humor. That kind of idle larking and the battalion’s flirtation with neo-Nazi symbolism is seized upon as confirmation of their critics’ worst fears.

The infamy appears only partly deserved, however. Some embrace fervent Ukrainian nationalism as a repudiation of the heavily Russian-dominated Soviet legacy, all while serving with fighters from a wide array of political and ethnic backgrounds. Chit-chat switches casually from Ukrainian to Russian and back again.

The best view of the skirmishes raging inside the village is from the House of Culture, a stolid building of a style popular across the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin’s rule. From there, fighters unleashed salvos from an automatic grenade launcher and 73 mm caliber anti-tank guns.

Ukrainian forces hold the elevated sections of Shyrokyne, giving them a tactical advantage. Smoke could be seen billowing from houses in the lower-lying buffer zone. One shell apparently flying in from rebel positions landed by a church.

All at once, the men on the House of Culture roof cried out in a jubilant chorus, pointing toward the village. “Did you see those flames? We hit a tank. Two direct hits,” one government fighter said. By the day’s end, the final Ukrainian tally was at least one enemy tank destroyed and two relatively light injuries among their ranks.

Almost every day brings new casualties — on occasion, some fatal — but their determination to stop the rebel advance along the Azov Sea coast is intense. One Azov fighter calling himself Tantsor — Russian for dancer — said the rebels were clearly hoping to take Mariupol by stealth.

“They are violating the cease-fire everywhere and using any chance they get to advance even by one centimeter toward peaceful Ukrainian towns,” he said.

Key Ukraine town under rebel control, separatists celebrate

February 19, 2015

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (AP) — For the rebel fighters who seized control of this strategic town, Thursday was a day of jubilation and bragging of victory. The retreating Ukrainian soldiers were grim, stunned and relieved to have escaped with their lives as the scope of their losses became clearer: at least 13 dead and hundreds missing, captured or wounded.

Rebel fighters roamed the debris-littered streets of Debaltseve, laughing, hugging and posing for photos a day after the fall of the furiously contested railway hub. Associated Press journalists found its neighborhoods destroyed and all under the control of the rebels.

On the road out of town, dozens of Ukrainian military vehicles, many riddled with bullet holes and with their windshields smashed, were heading to the government-held city of Artemivsk. The soldiers inside described weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, followed by a hasty retreat.

“We left under heavy fire, driving on back roads,” said a soldier who gave only his first name, Andrei. “As we were leaving, we were attacked by artillery and grenade launchers. We came under repeated attack by tanks and assault groups.”

As rebels waved separatist flags, Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader and prominent warlord in the rebel-controlled east, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle captured from Ukrainian troops. All around lay the wrecked remains of Ukrainian armored vehicles. Rebel fighters, many of them Cossacks, searched through the bunkers and tents of an abandoned military encampment, looking to salvage equipment and clothing left behind.

Two rebel fighters inspected an abandoned tank, declaring it a “gift” from the Ukrainian army. They then grabbed a bloodied blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and ground it into the frozen earth with their boots.

But in a reminder of the dangers, one vehicle carrying Cossacks hit a land mine, killing one rebel fighter and wounding another. Cossacks, who spearheaded imperial Russia’s expansion and helped guard its far-flung outposts, trace their historic roots to both Ukraine and southern Russia. They faced persecution under Bolshevik rule but resurfaced after the 1991 Soviet collapse and are now recognized in Russia as an ethnic group who consider themselves descendants of the czarist-era horsemen.

By Thursday, 90 percent of government forces had been withdrawn, a military spokesman said, though he gave no precise figure. Late Wednesday, President Petro Poroshenko said 2,475 soldiers were safely pulled out.

The official toll stood at 13 soldiers killed, 157 wounded, more than 90 captured and at least 82 missing. But retreating soldiers spoke of many more casualties during a hasty and disorderly withdrawal, and the death toll was likely to rise.

Rebel leaders also claimed the Ukrainian casualties were far higher and bragged about seizing large numbers of heavy weapons abandoned by the government forces. The capture of Debaltseve, a key railroad junction that straddles the route between the separatists’ two main cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, was a significant military victory for the rebels.

However, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the three-week siege had left the town’s infrastructure in ruins. “A strategic rail hub has stopped its existence the way it was,” he said Thursday in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

The retreating soldiers appeared shell-shocked as they described the harrowing battle. “Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping. They did this all night,” said Andrei, the Ukrainian soldier. “Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave. They did this constantly for three weeks.”

The battle for Debaltseve defied a cease-fire for eastern Ukraine that was supposed to go into effect Sunday. While the truce mostly held elsewhere, Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said the rebels had repeatedly shelled a village on the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol over the past 24 hours.

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes since fighting began in April, a month after Russia annexed the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula. Russia denies arming the rebels or supplying fighters, but Western nations and NATO point to satellite pictures of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke Thursday with the Ukrainian and Russian leaders about cease-fire violations and their consequences. The Kremlin confirmed the four leaders spoke by phone and praised the cease-fire deal, saying it has led to “a reduction in the number of civilian casualties.”

France and Germany, which oversaw marathon peace talks last week between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Belorussian capital, Minsk, both signaled they were determined to salvage the cease-fire agreement and keep the two sides talking.

The German government said the four leaders had agreed “to stick to the Minsk agreements despite the serious breach of the cease-fire in Debaltseve.” It said “immediate concrete steps” were necessary to ensure the truce is fully implemented and heavy weapons are withdrawn.

The warring sides were supposed to pull back their heavy weapons from the front lines beginning Tuesday, but international monitors said they had not seen either doing so. “We have not observed the withdrawal of heavy weapons, however we have observed and reported on the movement of heavy weapons,” said Michael Bociurkiw of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Poroshenko suggested that the European Union deploy a peacekeeping mission to help ensure the observance of the cease-fire, but the EU has remained non-committal and Russia reacted negatively, saying that the OSCE monitors could do the job.

Paris and Berlin appeared to hope that, with the disputed territory of Debaltseve in rebel hands, the cease-fire can now take hold. A top French official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the ongoing negotiations, described the attitude as “pragmatic,” saying continued fighting “was not acceptable to us.”

Germany has lowered expectations for the cease-fire in Ukraine. Merkel told supporters that “Germany and France together, will not ease off on doing everything so that Ukraine can go its way and have its territorial integrity — but we want to do it with Russia, not against Russia.”

Analysts said that despite public anger in Kiev over the fall of Debaltseve, an overall cease-fire for eastern Ukraine was probably more important than who controlled one town. Germany is “more clearly aware than many in Kiev that Ukraine basically needs a cease-fire or a freezing of the conflict more urgently than Moscow,” said Gustav Gressel, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “Kiev needs to see sooner or later how it gets out of the war.”

Associated Press writers Balint Szlanko in Artemivsk, Ukraine; Jim Heintz in Kiev, Laura Mills in Moscow, Lori Hinnant in Paris, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Embattled Debaltseve falls to Ukraine rebels; troops retreat

February 18, 2015

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine (AP) — After weeks of relentless fighting, the embattled Ukrainian rail hub of Debaltseve fell Wednesday to Russia-backed separatists, who hoisted a flag in triumph over the town. The Ukrainian president confirmed that he had ordered troops to pull out and the rebels reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive.

Associated Press reporters saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons Wednesday morning from the town in eastern Ukraine, covered in dirt and looking exhausted. Some were driving to the nearby town of Artemivsk in trucks while several others, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot.

One soldier spoke of heavy government losses, while another said they had not been able to get food or water because of the intense rebel shelling. A third spoke of hunkering down in bunkers for hours, unable to even go to the toilet because of the shelling. They smoked cigarettes in the frigid winter air and gratefully accepted plastic cups of tea given to them by locals.

“We’re very happy to be here,” the hungry soldier told the AP. “We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times.” Russian Channel One showed the rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve.

By Wednesday morning, the army had withdrawn 80 percent of its troops from the town and two more columns had yet to leave, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said. In face-saving comments, he denied claims by the rebels that the Ukrainians were surrounded and said the troops were leaving Debaltseve with their weapons and ammunition.

“Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner,” he said in televised comments. He denied reports of large Ukrainian casualties and hundreds of soldiers captured.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit Tuesday to Budapest, had urged Kiev to admit defeat in the contested town, saying “the only choice” of the Ukrainian troops was to “leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused the separatists of refusing to respect a cease-fire agreement and urged Russia “to end support for separatists and to withdraw forces and military equipment from eastern Ukraine.” Russia has denied supplying the separatists with troops and weapons, a claim scoffed at by Western nations and Ukraine, who point to NATO satellite pictures of Russian weapons in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that “laid shame on Russia, which called on the Ukrainian troops yesterday to lay down arms, raise the white flag and surrender. “The Ukrainian troops… gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them,” he said at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to “shake the hands” of the soldiers leaving Debaltseve.

Russian state-owned television showed images Wednesday of several dozen Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels. The withdrawal attracted fierce criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians as well as from the commanders of volunteer battalions fighting alongside government troops. Semyon Semenchenko, a battalion commander and a member of parliament, on Facebook accused the military command of betraying the country’s interests in Debaltseve.

“We had enough forces and means,” he said. “The problem is the command and coordination. They are as bad as can be.” The fierce fighting around Debaltseve, which links the two major separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, had raged on despite a cease-fire deal brokered by European leaders which took effect Sunday.

Some retreating troops said Wednesday they had not received any reinforcements from the government in Debaltseve and had been walking and retreating for a whole day. One Ukrainian soldier who introduced himself only as Nikolai said he was not even sure if his unit was retreating or being rotated out of Debaltseve.

“I don’t know, our commanders didn’t tell us whether it’s retreat or just rotation,” he said. “They just told us to change our positions because our unit had been staying there for quite a long time and we had sustained quite big losses.”

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who negotiated the cease-fire deal last week are expected to talk about its implementation later Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Wednesday accused the Russian-backed rebels in Debaltseve of acting “in clear violation of the cease-fire.” “Russia and the separatists have to immediately and fully implement the commitments agreed to in Minsk, in line with yesterday’s U.N. Security Council resolution, starting with the respect of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of all heavy weapons,” Mogherini said in a statement.

In Berlin, the German government condemned rebels’ advance on Debaltseve. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert described the onslaught as “a serious strain on the (Minsk cease-fire) agreement as well as hopes for peace in eastern Ukraine.”

Elsewhere in the conflict zone, rebel leaders said Wednesday that they had begun withdrawing heavy weaponry from parts of the front line where the cease-fire was holding. Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that rebels were pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, on the road to the government-controlled port of Mariupol.

“This is the first step,” Basurin said. “We’re not waiting for Ukraine to start pulling back the weaponry together with us.” Observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, have tried to get to Debaltseve since Sunday but have been blocked by the rebels. The separatists’ Donetsk News Agency quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko saying the OSCE will be allowed to visit Debaltseve “soon.”

Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Peter Leonard in Vuhlehirsk, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Ukraine says rebels continue their onslaught on Debaltseve

February 18, 2015

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Government forces were seen retreating from the battlefield Wednesday as Russia-backed rebels continued their onslaught on the railroad junction of Debaltseve, the epicenter of fighting between the separatist and government troops in eastern Ukraine.

Fierce fighting around the town linking the two major separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk raged on despite a cease-fire deal brokered by European leaders which went into effect on Sunday, to be followed by the withdrawal of heavy weaponry beginning Tuesday. Hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian troops are believed to be trapped in Debaltseve.

Associated Press reporters on the road to the government-controlled town of Artemivsk saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons from Debaltseve on Wednesday morning. Covered in dirt and looking tired, some of them were driving to Artemivsk in trucks while several other men, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot. Angry that they had not received any reinforcement from the government, they said they had to retreat and walk for a whole day.

Semyon Semenchenko, a Ukrainian volunteer battalion commander and member of parliament, said in a statement on Wednesday that the troops pull-out from Debaltseve “has been planned and organized.” The defense ministry, however, insisted in a statement that the fighting around Debaltseve was continuing.

The separatists said they have taken control of the town and offered the Ukrainian troops the opportunity to surrender and abandon their weapons, a claim Ukraine denied. Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said in a televised briefing on Wednesday that the rebels launched five artillery strikes on Debaltseve overnight thus “grossly violating the peace accords.”

AP journalists were turned back by rebel forces outside Vuhlehirsk, about 10 kilometers (six miles) west of Debaltseve, early on Wednesday and were unable to assess the status of the fight. Regular artillery fire, coming from the rebel side, was heard in the area.

Kiev has admitted that soldiers had been taken prisoner in Debaltseve, but gave no details on how many were seized. Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin said hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered in Debaltseve. Russian state-owned television on Wednesday showed images of several dozen Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit on Budapest on Tuesday, suggested that Ukrainian forces should lay down their arms. Rebel leaders said on Wednesday that they have begun the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the parts of the frontline where the cease-fire holds. Eduard Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that they are now pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on the road to the government-controlled port of Mariupol.

“This is the first step,” Basurin said. “And we’re not waiting for Ukraine to start pulling back the weaponry together with us.” Observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, the group responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, have attempted to go to Debaltseve since Sunday but have been blocked by the rebels.

The separatists’ Donetsk News Agency on Wednesday quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko saying that the OSCE will be allowed to visit Debaltseve “soon” once their forces have finished the operation there.

Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Vuhlehirsk, Ukraine.

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