Saturday 24 February 2018

Rebels celebrate in besieged town

A pro-Russia rebel Cossack hugs another rebel in Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine (AP)
A pro-Russia rebel Cossack hugs another rebel in Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine (AP)
After weeks of relentless fighting, the embattled Ukrainian rail hub of Debaltseve fell to Russia-backed separatists (AP)

Rebel fighters are celebrating on the streets of Debaltseve a day after Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from the besieged town.

Troops have been seen laughing, hugging and posing for photos amid a mood of celebration.

The town, which has been a focal point for fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, is almost completely under the control of rebel fighters, most of whom appear to be Cossacks.

Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader who has been a prominent warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle that had been captured from Ukrainian troops.

Other rebels were seen waving separatist flags.

But in a reminder of the dangers of the area, one car carrying Cossacks hit a land mine 200 yards from journalists, killing one Cossack and injuring one other.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said more than 90% of its forces have been withdrawn from Debaltseve and its surroundings, but was unclear on when the retreat might be completed.

Military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh also said rebels heavily shelled a village on the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol in the last day, despite a ceasefire that was supposed to come into effect on Sunday.

Ukrainian troops began abandoning Debaltseve on Wednesday after weeks of heavy fighting. Control of the town is a significant strategic gain for the rebels because it is a railway junction that straddles the most direct route between Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist region's two main cities.

In Paris, French president Francois Hollande said he and German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia about ceasefire violations and their consequences.

The Kremlin confirmed that the four leaders had spoken by phone and praised the ceasefire deal, saying it has led to "a reduction in the number of civilian casualties".

The leaders "emphasised the necessity of ensuring the sustainability of the cease-fire," the Kremlin said, urging both sides to withdraw heavy weapons and release all prisoners.

It said the foreign ministers of the four countries would get in contact to talk more about implementing the Minsk peace deal for eastern Ukraine.

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed 5,600 people and forced more than a million to flee their homes since fighting began in April.

A top EU official says the 28-member bloc will provide armoured cars and satellite imagery to monitor a ceasefire, but is undecided whether to commit troops to a proposed UN-mandated peacekeeping mission.

Maciej Popowski, deputy secretary general for external action service, said: "there needs to be more clarity" on the proposal by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko before the EU could decide on sending troops to Ukraine.

He spoke to reporters after a meeting of the EU's defence ministers in Riga.

France's defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said separately the OSCE would be sending some 400 ceasefire observers to Ukraine.

The EU and Nato have urged the pro-Russia separatists to allow OSCE observes to monitor the shaky ceasefire deal.

Press Association

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