Kiev says troops withdrawn from Debaltsevo, rebels claim military ‘surrender en masse’
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed in a video statement that he has given an order to withdraw troops from Debaltsevo on Wednesdsay.
“We stated and proved that Debaltsevo was under our control and that there was no encirclement. Our units withdrew according to plan in an organized manner. They took military hardware with them – tanks, APCs, artillery pieces, tow-tracks, cars,” the president said.
He added that some 80 percent of the troops have already left the city.
Later on Wednesday, Poroshenko specified that a total of 2, 475 troops had left Debaltsevo, including 2,132 members of the Ukrainian armed forces and 158 members of the National Guard.
“Nearly 200 units of military hardware have been pulled back from Debaltsevo,” Poroshenko said.
Reuters cited a witness who saw the troops, some of them injured, arriving in Artemyevsk, a city northwest of Debaltsevo, through which a road leading to Kiev-controlled areas goes.
Poroshenko will visit eastern Ukraine later in the day and chair a security council session in the evening, Ukrainian media reported.
Earlier Semen Semenchenko, MP and commander of one of Kiev’s volunteer battalions, reported that the troops were being withdrawn from the contested city. He added that Kiev should now attack in other parts of the frontline, which had been weakened by the rebels to lay siege on Debaltsevo.
“They are empty and we have troops. One strike and the frontline would crumble,” he assured, adding that withdrawal is “beyond comprehension.”
However, DPR spokesman Denis Pushilin has denied Poroshenko’s statement, saying Kiev troops are not being evacuated, but are giving themselves up.
“Most of these formations, which Poroshenko referred to, were defeated by the militia forces, and some of these units surrendered or are surrendering now,” Pushilin said as cited by the Donetsk news agency.
Maksim Leshchenko, a senior official in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also told journalists on Wednesday that the Ukrainian troops are laying down their arms “in their hundreds.”
— RT (@RT_com) February 18, 2015
Earlier on Tuesday, Eduard Basurin, a military spokesperson for the rebels, confirmed taking some 300 soldiers prisoner.
Debaltsevo was Kiev’s stronghold deep inside the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine, a military asset portrayed in the media as a site of a heroic last stand of the Ukrainian military. The rebels said they had some 3,000 troops encircled in a pocket and had been calling on them for days to lay down their arms and surrender. Kiev rejected the claims, insisting that Debalstevo supply lines were intact and that the city would remain under their control.
The fate of Debaltsevo was arguably the biggest debating point at last week’s peace talks in Minsk, which resulted in a ceasefire agreement. The continued violence around the city contrasts the virtually uninterrupted truce in other parts of eastern Ukraine.
On Wednesday, anti-government forces started pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline in quiet areas of the conflict zone.
“Five 152mm self-propelled artillery pieces are being withdrawn from the village of Yelenovka to their permanent base,” Basurin told the media.
Under the Minsk agreement, Donetsk has 14 days to withdraw heavy weapons completely, but if everything goes “as planned, we can handle it faster,” the Donetsk Defense Ministry said.
“We intend to start artillery withdrawal in those areas, where the ceasefire is observed,” Basurin said.
On the line of contact, where there is no military actions, weapons will be pulled back “within 3-4 days,” the ministry stressed.
RIA Novosti confirmed the pullout, saying that its correspondent witnessed withdrawal of Grad multiple rocket launchers and tanks from the disengagement line.
According to Basurin, Debaltsevo is currently fully controlled by anti-government troops, but there are groups of Kiev soldiers in the south of the city trying to resist.
“DNR troops are now conducting a search operation in Debaltsevo aimed at locating and blocking those groups,” Basurin said.
He also stressed the situation in the so-called 'Debaltsevo cauldron' should not become a pretext for either Kiev, or militia to violate the Minsk agreements.
The OSCE confirmed the pullback of heavy weaponry from the line of contact by Lugansk self-defense forces, the Russian representative to the organization, Andrey Kelin told TASS.
"The OSCE is receiving reports on an ongoing pullback of armaments by the Lugansk republic," he said, adding that the organization doesn’t have information on Donetsk weaponry withdrawal at the moment.
"The OSCE doesn't have reports on it right now, although they've placed about 20 patrol teams along the line of contact and these patrols are expected to send in reports," he said.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini demanded an end to hostilities around Debaltsevo and threatened Russia with more EU sanctions.
"The EU stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue," she said.
The ceasefire also dominated Wednesday’s phone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
"Minister [Lavrov] pointed out the importance of direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk, including a speedy end to armed clashes in the area of Debaltsevo, and reiterated the obligations of the Ukrainian authorities to (conduct) constitutional reform and provide Donbass with a special status," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The US State Department believes both sides in the Ukraine conflict need more time to implement the Minsk peace plan, spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. US authorities haven’t taken a decision on arms supplies to Ukraine yet, she added.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Kiev and the rebels to do whatever they can to resolve the issue without loss of life.
“I really hope that the decision-makers in the Ukrainian leadership won’t prevent the Ukrainian troops from laying down arms, if they cannot take such an important decision themselves and order it. Or at least they shouldn’t harass people who want to save their lives,” he said.
“On the other hand, I expect the militias not to detain those people and allow them to leave the conflict zone and go back to their families,” he added.
However, there are some figures in Poroshenko’s government, who are “very much pro-military,” political analyst and founder of Global Political Insight Alexander Clackson told RT. Moreover, with the Ukrainian population feeling that Kiev “is failing,” Poroshenko can’t show weakness when it comes to eastern Ukraine.
“There is an inner circle within Poroshenko’s government who are very much pro-military if you like. They hate to see Ukraine being defeated over and over again. We’ve seen it prior to the talks in September in Minsk. And we have seen that again this time as well," Clackson said. "There is a general feeling among the Ukrainian population that the Ukrainian government is failing in this conflict in eastern Ukraine. So Poroshenko wasn’t able to come across as weak during the last Minsk talks. Because if he came to these talks saying ‘Listen, I’m ready to give up Debaltsevo,’ that would cause a huge uproar in his own country, which is precisely why he had to argue that Debaltsevo was not lost.”