Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Bloody Retreat from Debaltseve as Ukrainian Forces Suddenly Withdraw

At the New York Times:
ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces fought their way out of the embattled town of Debaltseve in the early hours of Wednesday, choosing a risky overnight breakout rather than surrender as they abandoned the town to Russian-backed militants.

President Petro O. Poroshenko said in a televised statement that he had ordered the retreat from Debaltseve, a strategic transportation hub where intense fighting raged in recent days despite a cease-fire agreement signed last week in Minsk, Belarus.

Mr. Poroshenko sought to cast the retreat in a positive light, but the loss of the town was clearly a devastating setback for the army at the hands of the separatists. Still, by avoiding capture, the soldiers who made it out also avoided handing the rebels a powerful bargaining chip.

Separatist leaders have insisted that the cease-fire agreement did not apply to Debaltseve, but no exceptions were mentioned when the deal was announced in Minsk.

Mr. Poroshenko’s decision, and his earlier refusal to hand over the town during the cease-fire talks, cost the Ukrainian army an unknown number of casualties. As the scale of the nighttime fighting around the town comes into focus, those decisions could prove contentious in Ukraine.

In a post on Twitter and in the televised statement from an airfield in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, before leaving to visit the front line, Mr. Poroshenko called the withdrawal “planned and organized” and said Ukrainian troops had accomplished their mission.

As many as 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers were said to be in Debaltseve before the withdrawal. It was unclear on Wednesday how many survived and avoided capture. Mr. Poroshenko said 80 percent of the army’s units had left.

By midday on Wednesday, limping and exhausted soldiers were showing up on the Ukrainian side of the front lines in the conflict, describing a harrowing ordeal that began with a surprise 1 a.m. order to retreat.

“Many trucks left, and only a few arrived,” said one soldier, who offered only his rank (sergeant) and his given name (Volodomyr) as he knelt on the sidewalk smoking. “A third of us made it, at most,” the soldier said.

Others said that a majority, at least, of the soldiers who set off from the town in a column of about 100 trucks had managed to escape the encirclement, many of them straggling out on foot after their vehicles were blown up.

The order to retreat was kept secret until the last minute, and soldiers were told to prepare in 10 minutes and pile into the beds of troop transport trucks, according to Albert Sardaryen, a 22-year-old medic who made the journey...

And at the Washington Post, "Ukraine calls for international peacekeepers."