Ukraine’s president said his government’s forces are pulling out of the contested eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, which has been under siege by pro-Russian rebels and where fighting has continued despite a cease-fire.
In a video statement Wednesday, President Petro Poroshenko said, “Ukrainian armed forces, together with the National Guard, completed an operation for a planned and organized withdrawal from Debaltseve.”
Poroshenko said that so far 80 percent of Ukrainian units have left the city, adding that another two columns are expected to pull out soon as well.
A deputy regional police chief in the besieged city told reporters earlier Wednesday that “full-scale street fighting” continued, even as Ukrainian troops were pulling out.
The strategic town, which is encircled by pro-Russian rebels, has been the epicenter of fighting in recent weeks. The violence has continued, even past an internationally brokered cease-fire that went into place early Sunday.
The separatists have insisted the town was surrounded before the cease-fire began, making it an internal part of the rebel-held region rather than part of the frontlines where envoys agreed the fighting would stop.
The United States, which says it is still considering supplying Kyiv with arms to put down the rebellion, blamed the rebels for violating the terms of the cease-fire.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden blamed the violence on “separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces,” according to a White House statement, which also said Biden and Poroshenko discussed the matter in a phone call.
“If Russia continues to violate the Minsk agreements, including the most recent agreement signed on February 12, the costs to Russia will rise,” the White House statement added.
Under the terms of the cease-fire, both sides were to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontal areas Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday called on pro-Russian rebels to allow besieged Ukrainian troops safe passage out of Debaltseve. Speaking in the Hungarian capital, Putin also urged the Kyiv government to allow its troops to surrender.
In the news conference, broadcast on Moscow television, Putin noted that Ukrainian troops were encircled at Debaltseve “about a week before” the truce deal was reached on February 12. He also said that he predicted last week the encirclement at Debaltseve meant “one way or another, for some time, that these clashes will continue.”
The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution drafted by Russia that supports the Minsk cease-fire deal, while calling on rebels to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The vote in New York took place as witnesses reported some of the heaviest fighting of the weeks-long battle for Debaltseve.
Ukraine and a host of Western governments accuse Russia of stoking the rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east with arms and fighters, while the Kremlin denies providing direct support.
(Archive photo: Facebook page of the Ukraine defence ministry)