Ukraine troops pull out of besieged town; 22 soldiers killed

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Ukrainian troops pulled out of a besieged flashpoint eastern town on Wednesday after it was stormed by pro-Russian rebels in what the EU said was a “clear violation” of an internationally-backed truce.

Twenty-two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and more than 150 were wounded in fighting with Russian-backed separatists in the railway junction of Debaltseve in the last few days, Interfax news agency quoted the armed forces general staff as saying on Wednesday.

The announcement was made after government troops pulled out of the strategic town in eastern Ukraine following weeks of artillery, rocket and tank attacks by the rebels.

The retreat from Debaltseve — a strategic railway hub sandwiched between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk — was a serious defeat for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to office vowing to crush the separatist uprising.

Poroshenko, who flew to the front as the pullout was under way, described the exodus as “a planned and organised withdrawal”. He said 80 per cent of the soldiers deployed in the town had left and spoke only of “30 wounded” among them.

Haggard soldiers in grubby clothes seen arriving in Debaltseve’s neighbouring town of Artemivsk on dozens of tanks and other vehicles, or on foot, contradicted Poroshenko’s words.

“We didn’t hear anything about an order to pull out. We only found out about it when our heavy armour started leaving,” one soldier said, declining to give his name or unit. “We should have pulled out earlier,” another said bitterly.

The bodies of at least 13 soldiers were delivered to a morgue in the nearby town of Artemivsk. A row of makeshift coffins stood in the snow outside waiting to transport the corpses, still in camouflage uniform.

Debaltseve’s fall dealt a heavy blow to the European-brokered truce agreed by all sides last week in a bid to quell a 10-month conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said in Berlin that the rebel offensive on Debaltseve had put a “heavy strain” on hopes for peace.

Truce ‘not dead’:

But France insisted the truce it and Germany helped broker last week in the Belarus capital Minsk “was not dead”. Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko were to speak by telephone later on Wednesday.

Western countries blame the relentless violence in Ukraine on Russia, which annexed Crimea in March last year and is accused of sending in troops and heavy weapons across the border to back the eastern insurgency. They say Moscow is cynically playing with the truce — which won unanimous backing from the UN Security Council on Tuesday — to keep Ukraine destabilised.