bne IntelliNews -
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced that Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists are pulling out of the East Ukraine town of Debaltseve, which has been under attack from the rebel forces since mid-January.
Speaking at a military airport before flying to East Ukraine, Poroshenko said that the withdrawal had been planned by Kyiv and not forced by the rebels.
"We have stated and proven: Debaltseve was under our control, and there was no encirclement. Our units and forces have left it in a planned and organised manner,” Poroshenko said. “They've left it with their military equipment, with tanks, with armored personnel carriers, with self-propelled guns, tow tractors, and automobiles," he added as quoted by Interfax Ukraine. TV pictures and reports showed some columns of Ukrainian personnel carriers and army trucks carrying soldiers out of the town, although it is not clear whether all Ukrainian forces have been evacuated.
Poroshenko's words contradicted widespread reports that the Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve were encircled and running out of ammunition and food, including desperate calls from commanders of troops in the town to live Ukrainian TV detailing their plight.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had also previously suggested that Poroshenko was being misled by his army staff on the situation on the ground. On February 17 he called on Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms and for rebels to allow the government forces to leave the town.
Today's withdrawal of Ukrainian troops may indicate a deal was struck between Kyiv and Moscow, say analysts, allowing Poroshenko to save face and Putin to avoid a threatened sharpening of Western sanctions against Russia, were the conflict to escalate again.
Reports spoke of over 50 corpses of Ukrainian soldiers being delivered to the morgue at the nearest government held town, Artemovsk.
A rebel military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, said on Russian TV on February 18 that over 300 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered, according to Interfax. Ukrainian soldiers posting on the internet also reported the surrender of some groups of government forces.
Poroshenko said that in his airport statement that "from 2,000 soldiers, we have 30 who are wounded."
Locals were also reporting civilian casualties among the fighting.
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