Published time: February 18, 2015 09:30
Edited time: February 18, 2015 14:48
Kiev troops surrounded in the city of Debalstevo have started to surrender en masse, Ukrainian rebels have said. President Poroshenko announced a complete withdrawal from the contested city.
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.
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Earlier Semen Semenchenko, MP and commander of one of Kiev’s volunteer battalions, reported that the troops were being withdrawn from the contested city.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.”
Meanwhile Maksim Leshchenko, a senior official in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, 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.
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.
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.
RIA Novosti confirmed the pullout, saying that its correspondent witnessed withdrawal of Grad multiple rocket launchers and tanks from the disengagement line.
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.