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Separatists Take Control of E. Ukraine Town

by VOA News February 18, 2015

After weeks of fierce fighting, pro-Russian separatists have taken control of embattled Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine as Kyiv's forces retreated.

The rebels hoisted their flag Wednesday in triumph over the strategic rail hub that links the separatist strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered Kyiv's troops to leave Debaltseve after rebels reported taking hundreds of government forces captive and left its remaining fighters short of food and water.

Poroshenko, who visited the frontlines later Wednesday to meet with returning soldiers, said early Wednesday 80 percent of several thousand Ukrainian troops had left the city, with others to follow.

​​He said the withdrawal 'laid shame on Russia' for its support of the separatists.

Kyiv's forces, which had been virtually surrounded in Debaltseve, left with their weapons.

Tuesday in Hungary, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a more philosophical view of Kyiv's impending defeat at Debaltseve and said the cease-fire negotiated last week must be implemented.

'Of course, it is always bad to lose. Of course, it is always painful to lose, especially if you lose to yesterday's miners and tractor mechanics,' Putin said. 'But life is life, and it will definitely go on. ... We should resolve the main task -- save lives of lives of the people who are there now, to insure that they would return to their families, and fulfill the whole plan agreed on in Minsk.''

​​Germany condemned on Wednesday the pro-Russian separatists' offensive at Debaltseve, calling it a clear violation of a cease-fire agreed last week, but said it was too early to call the broader Minsk peace deal dead.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said Europe stood ready to introduce new sanctions against Russia.

​​Phone call to discuss crisis

The four leaders -- from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France -- who hammered out the peace deal last week will discuss the Ukraine crisis in a telephone call Wednesday evening, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said.

Debaltseve has been the epicenter of fighting in recent weeks, even after an internationally brokered cease-fire that went into place Sunday.

The separatists insisted they surrounded the town before the cease-fire began, making it an internal part of the rebel-held region rather than part of the frontlines where envoys agreed the fighting would stop.

Poroshenko denied those claims Wednesday. 'Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled,' he said.

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, The Associated Press reported.

The United States, which said it is still considering supplying Kyiv with arms to put down the rebellion, has blamed the rebels for violating the terms of the cease-fire.

Violence blamed on 'separatist forces'

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden blamed the violence on 'separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces,' according to a White House statement, which also said Biden and Poroshenko discussed the matter in a phone call Wednesday.

'If Russia continues to violate the Minsk agreements, including the most recent agreement signed on February 12, the costs to Russia will rise,' the White House statement added.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also discussed over the phone Wednesday the implementation of a peace deal to end the conflict in east Ukraine, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

"The minister pointed out the importance of direct dialog between Kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, including a speedy end to armed clashes in the area of Debaltseve, and reiterated the obligations of the Ukrainian authorities to (conduct) constitutional reform and provide Donbass with a special status," the ministry said in a statement.

EU, NATO reaction

Also stepping up Western criticism of the rebel offensive on Debaltseve, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Brussels, 'The actions by the Russia-backed separatists in Debaltseve are a clear violation of the cease-fire.

"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, making an apparent threat of further economic sanctions on Moscow.

Voicing his concerns about fighting at Debaltseve, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the refusal of pro-Russian separatists to respect the cease-fire threatened the Minsk accord.

"The refusal of the separatists to respect the cease-fire threatens the agreement, as does their denial of access to the area for the OSCE monitors," Stoltenberg told reporters in the Latvian capital where he was attending a meeting of European Union defense ministers.

He also said Russian forces, artillery and air defense units were still active in Ukraine.

Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution drafted by Russia that supports the Minsk cease-fire deal, while calling for rebels to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Ukraine and a host of Western governments accuse Russia of stoking the rebellion in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east with arms and fighters, while the Kremlin denies providing direct support.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is approaching the first anniversary on February 20 of the Maidan uprising, when over a hundred protesters were shot dead in central Kyiv that led to the toppling of then-President, Viktor Yanukovich.

Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.



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