Defeated Ukrainians forced into ignominious retreat as Putin turns the screw in fierce battles
Ukrainian forces are carrying out a "planned and organised" departure from the town of Debaltseve, the contested railway junction town that has been at the centre of ferocious fighting undermining a ceasefire agreement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said yesterday that 80pc of forces had been withdrawn from Debaltseve with their weapons and another two columns were expected to leave.
Speaking from a snowy airfield in Kiev before leaving for the front lines, Mr Poroshenko praised Ukrainian forces for fulfilling their duty in defending Debaltseve.
He said they had shown the world "the true face of the bandits and separatists who are supported by Russia."
Mr Poroshenko gave the order to Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the town, a strategic rail junction in eastern Ukraine, on Tuesday night after, he said, international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had been stopped by separatists from entering the town.
Despite what he described as heavy artillery attacks, the number of wounded on the Ukrainian side during the operation was only 30, he said.
Ukrainian media and a pro-government militia commander reported that surviving Ukrainian forces had begun withdrawing from what had become to be known as the 'Debaltseve pocket' early yesterday morning.
Many of the withdrawing troops left on foot, marching towards Ukrainian positions on the Artemivsk highway, which has become known as the "road of life" for the trapped garrison.
Semen Semenchenko, the commander of the pro-Kiev Donbass volunteer battalion, said in a statement on his Facebook page that withdrawal was well organised but that government forces had failed to re-open the main road out of Debaltseve to assist the retreat.
"The withdrawal of troops from Debaltseve is planned and organised. All the fairy tales about Logovino turned out to be fairy tales - the pumpkin did not turn into a carriage. We don't control the Debaltseve-Artemivlsk road precisely because of Logvinovo," he wrote in reference to claims by official military spokesmen to have recaptured the key hamlet controlling the road.
"Other roads are controlled by the National Guard, Donbass battalion, and the armed forces. The enemy is trying to cut these roads to hinder the withdrawal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured inset) had earlier told Ukrainian soldiers they should give up to "save their own lives".
Mr Putin had urged Ukraine to enable its soldiers to lay down their weapons and flee battles against rebels.
Separatists claimed hundreds of soldiers had already surrendered or been captured, although the numbers could not be confirmed.
Mr Putin, who has denied persistent allegations that his government is arming the separatists, seemed to back the rebels in the battle for Debaltseve.
"I hope that the responsible figures in the Ukrainian leadership will not hinder soldiers in the Ukrainian army from putting down their weapons," he said.
"If they aren't capable of taking that decision themselves and giving that order, then (I hope) that they won't prosecute people who want to save their lives and the lives of others."
He added that he hoped the rebels would allow the Ukrainians to return to their families, once they had surrendered Debaltseve.
Last night questions were asked in Kiev about how several thousand troops were left in an obviously precarious position until they were encircled and defeated by superior Russian-backed forces.
Some believe the fallout could prove politically fatal for Mr Poroshenko's government, which has presided over a serious of military debacles since coming to power last year.
"Saur Mogila, Ilovaisk, the airport, Debaltseve," wrote Mr Semenchenko, citing a string of Ukrainian defeats dating back to last summer.
"These are not testament to Russian superiority, but of the massive heroism of the people's army and the gross incompetence, if not worse, of the high command," he wrote.
The disaster is especially painful because it is not the first, but the second time, that it has happened.
The failure to anticipate and respond to the separatist's textbook encirclement at Debaltseve has drawn instant comparisons to August's battle of Ilovaisk, which followed a direct Russian military intervention.
Thousands of Ukrainian troops were surrounded yesterday in the strategic railway hub as rebels seized parts of the town.
Gun battles were fought from street to street as mortar fire and rockets rained down on both sides, causing a huge explosion when a gas pipeline was hit.
Journalists near the snowy frontline said artillery rounds were rocking Debaltseve every five seconds yesterday and black smoke was rising skywards as Grad rockets pounded the town.
It was unclear how many civilians are still in the besieged town but the UN expressed its concerns for "a few thousand" people believed to be hiding in cellars, trapped.
Rebels claim the ceasefire announced last week does not apply to Debaltseve, which lies between their two main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, as they have already taken "80 per cent" of it and call it "internal territory" - a claim Ukraine denies.
Eduard Basurin, a rebel leader, said negotiations were under way for 5,000 Ukrainian troops to surrender.
"Hundreds" of government soldiers had been captured and would eventually be released to their families, he claimed. Ukraine admitted its troops had been taken but denied the number was so great.
Despite Mr Putin's public call for surrender, Russia sponsored a resolution adopted by the UN Security Council that called on all sides to implement the peace plan, expressing "grave concern" at the violence.
Even while supporting the resolution yesterday, the US and other council members spoke with scorn. American Ambassador to the UN, Dublin-born Samantha Power, called Russia's drafting of the resolution "ironic, to say the least" given it was "backing an all-out assault" in Ukraine.
The Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, responded by calling the comments "offensive."
Hopes that the deal reached last Thursday would end a conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people so far were always slim after a rebel advance in January left a previous ceasefire in tatters.
But EU foreign policy chief Francesca Mogherini refused to concede defeat, acknowledging the battles were "not encouraging" but adding: "As long as there is a signed deal to which the parties still refer as something that needs to be implemented, I will not say that there is a failure.
The Ukrainian government and Nato say the rebel assault on Debaltseve was reinforced by Russian tanks, artillery and soldiers, while Moscow denied any involvement in the battle for the region termed Novorossiya (New Russia) by Mr Putin and separatists.
However, earlier yesterday American officials said they were "gravely concerned" by the fighting and were monitoring reports of a new influx of Russian military equipment heading to the area. (© Daily Telegraph, London)