Ukrainian troops began a pullout from the flashpoint town of Debaltseve on Wednesday, retreating from the strategically important transport hub under the sound of artillery fire after days of ferocious fighting.
President Petro Poroshenko said via his official Twitter account that 80 percent of government troops had withdrawn, with two more columns yet to leave the besieged city. But he denied claims by pro-Russian rebels that some soldiers remained encircled in Debaltseve.
It comes after days of fighting over the city despite a cease-fire that nominally went into effect on Sunday.
Rebels said that truce — negotiated by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France at a summit in Minsk, Belarus, last week — did not apply to Debaltseve, a railway and transport hub that links the two rebel-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine. In the last few days, some 22 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and more than 150 injured, the Interfax news agency reported, citing the armed forces’ general staff.
The ongoing battle over the city threatened to render the cease-fire stillborn. Even as Wednesday’s retreat was underway, gunfire continued, and there were conflicting reports over the circumstances of the pullback.
Rebels said some Ukrainian forces remained encircled, with hundreds surrendering in Debaltseve. But in televised comments, Poreshenko said Debaltseve was “under our control. It was never encircled."
"Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner,” he added in remarks delivered at a Kiev airport en route to “shake hands” with retreating Ukrainian soldiers.
Semen Semenchenko, who heads the Donbass paramilitary battalion, said via a Facebook post that the pullout was being hampered by rebels who were “trying to cut the roads and prevent the exit of the troops.”
Another pro-government paramilitary leader, Mykola Kolesnyk, told a television channel that not all troops were pulling out. “We are talking only about units that are surrounded in populated areas in and around the town,” he said.
The retreat took place against a backdrop of artillery fire. A senior Ukrainian police official said fighting was going on in the town. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry in an early morning statement also reported fighting.
Even before the Ukrainian troops were forced to pull back, last week’s peace deal had all but collapsed, with both sides failing to lay down heavy guns as required and the rebels refusing to halt their advance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Kiev should allow its soldiers to surrender to the rebels. “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.
The rebels say the cease-fire does not apply to Debaltseve, which lies in a pocket between rebel-held areas.
Despite Putin's public call for a surrender, Russia, which the West blames for arming separatist groups in Ukraine’s east, sponsored a resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council that called on all sides to implement the truce, expressing “grave concern” over the violence.
Hopes that the deal reached Feb. 12 would end a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people were always low after a rebel advance in January ended an earlier, much violated truce.
Russia has annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and Western countries believe Putin’s goal is to establish a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, gaining permanent leverage over a country of 45 million people seeking integration with Europe.
Poroshenko earlier called the rebel assault on Debaltseve a cynical attack on the Minsk agreement. Kiev and NATO say the rebel assault on Debaltseve is being reinforced by Russian tanks, artillery and soldiers. Moscow denies that it has sent its forces to join the battle for a region that Putin has called Novorossiya.
The United States has been considering sending weapons to aid Kiev, although the State Department said on Tuesday that getting into a proxy war with Russia was not in the interests of Ukraine or the rest of the world. Putin said he believed foreign weapons were already being supplied to Kiev.
Al Jazeera and wires