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Ukrainian Troops Withdraw From Besieged Town of Debaltseve

President Petro Poroshenko denied claims that forces were forced to withdraw after they were encircled by pro-Russia rebels, as foreign powers warned that the separatists were in violation of the latest ceasefire agreement.

by Giulia Aloisio
Feb 18 2015, 7:05pm

Image via AP

Ukrainian troops have begun an "organized withdrawal" from the besieged town of Debaltseve, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on Wednesday.

Eighty percent of Ukraine's troops left Debaltseve — the scene of intense battles in recent days — on Wednesday morning, according to Poroshenko. "I can inform now that this morning the armed forces of Ukraine together with the National Guard completed the operation on the planned and organized withdrawal of a part of units from Debaltseve," said Poroshenko in a video statement.

Poroshenko dismissed claims that Ukraine was forced to withdraw as pro-Russia rebels encircled up to 8,000 of its troops.

He said that only 30 soldiers out of 2,000 were wounded in the withdrawal operation, despite heavy bombardment by the rebels.

"We managed to show to the whole world the true face of bandits-separatists backed by Russia, which acted as guarantor and direct participant of the Minsk negotiations," added Poroshenko.

Drone footage released on Wednesday by Army SOS, a pro-Ukrainian fundraising group, revealed the scale of the devastation the fighting has brought to the town.

Pro-Russia separatists have been criticized for failing to halt their advance on Debaltseve despite a ceasefire agreed last week in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. 

The agreement, signed by Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, established a ceasefire to take effect in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk from 00:00 local time on February 15.

Earlier on Wednesday, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini confirmed that the activities carried out by rebels in Debaltseve violated the ceasefire imposed by the Minsk agreement.

"The EU stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue," said Mogherini in a statement.

Steffen Seibert, Merkel's spokesman, said during a government conference that it is too early to pronounce the Minsk agreement dead, although the military offensive of the pro-Russia separatists representsed a violation of the ceasefire.

A White House statement said that US Vice President Joe Biden has "agreed with President Poroshenko that if Russia continues to violate the Minsk agreements, including the most recent agreement signed on February 12, the costs to Russia will rise."

Separatist leaders replied to the accusations insisting that the area of Debaltseve was not subject to a ceasefire agreement; however, no exceptions were included in the Minsk deal.

The loss of Debaltseve is a blow to Ukrainian forces. The eastern town is a strategic point for the separatists, with a rail line connecting their strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Earlier on Wednesday, Poroshenko travelled to East Ukraine from Kiev to meet the soldiers.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed and over one million have been displaced from the region since the conflict in East Ukraine began in April 2014.