Ukraine troops retreat from key town of Debaltseve

The Ukrainian president says his forces are making an “organised” withdrawal from the embattled town of Debaltseve.Petro Poroshenko said 80% of Ukraine’s troops left on Wednesday morning, with more to follow.Fighting has raged over the transport hub, with pro-Russian rebels seizing control of most areas, despite a ceasefire deal.Russia’s foreign minister said Ukrainian forces had been encircled and were forced to battle their way out.”I’m reckoning that common sense will prevail,” said Sergei Lavrov as he urged the rebels to provide troops who surrendered with food and clothes.Sergei Lavrov: “The priority must be saving the lives of the Ukrainian troops”Earlier, US Vice-President Joe Biden accused Russia of violating the accord, agreed in Minsk last week.Mr Lavrov told reporters that the rebel attack in Debaltseve did not violate the ceasefire agreement, because the town was part of the rebel-held area at the time the peace deal was signed.Eyewitnesses saw dozens of tanks and columns of weary Ukrainian troops retreating from Debaltseve on Wednesday.”This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organised withdrawal from Debaltseve,” the Ukrainian president said in a statement before travelling to the frontline in the east.”As of now we can say that 80% of our units have left,” he said, adding that the troops were not encircled.”We are expecting another two columns (to leave).”Petro Poroshenko: “We were not encircled”Kiev has admitted that some soldiers were taken prisoner in Debaltseve, but gave no details on how many were seized. Meanwhile, rebel military spokesman Eduard Basurin said hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers there had given themselves up – something the president denied.The withdrawal comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine’s troops in Debaltseve to surrender.Mr Putin is due to speak by telephone later to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s Francois Hollande and President Poroshenko, according to the French government. Spokesman Stephane Le Foll insisted the agreement announced last week by the four leaders to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine was not dead, and that progress had been made.
Meanwhile a spokesman for Mrs Merkel condemned the rebel action in Debaltseve, saying it was a clear violation of the truce but that it was too early to determine whether that had failed.International observers monitoring the truce have been unable to enter the town.It has become a key prize for rebels and government forces, as it sits on a strategic railway line linking rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.Most of its 25,000 population has been evacuated but about 7,000 civilians are still believed trapped by the fighting.The ceasefire, which came into effect on Sunday, has been broadly observed elsewhere.Rebel leaders in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said on Wednesday they had begun to withdraw heavy weaponry from the parts of the frontline where the ceasefire was holding.The withdrawal was due to start no later than the second day after the truce came into effect and be completed within two weeks, creating buffer zones 50-140km (30-85 miles) wide.The UN says more than 5,600 people have been killed in the conflict since April, but there are fears the actual death toll could be much higher. Ukraine’s pro-Western government says Russia is supporting the separatists with troops and weapons, but the Kremlin has consistently denied this.British Prime Minister David Cameron has described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as “completely unacceptable” and warned of “financial consequences”.This comes after Mr Biden said he “strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces, in and around the town of Debaltseve”.He added: “If Russia continues to violate the Minsk agreements… the costs to Russia will rise.”