Petro Poroshenko, the pro-western president of Ukraine, ordered the withdrawal on Tuesday after international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were prevented from entering the railway hub, according to Reuters.
Mr Poroshenko said 80 per cent of Ukraine’s forces in the town had withdrawn from their positions. Two more columns have yet to leave the area.
Rebels claimed to have seized control of the town over the weekend, despite the introduction of a ceasefire on Sunday, leaving thousands of government forces trapped in the region.
Late on Wednesday, Ukraine’s national security and defence council appealed to the UN asking for a peace-keeping mission to be brought into the breakaway east. Oleksander Turchynov, national security chief, said such a mission was necessary to preserve “peace and security” in the region.
Before flying to the east of the country on Wednesday to meet soldiers recently withdrawn from Debaltseve, Mr Poroshenko said: “Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organised and planned manner.”
Anastasiya Stanko, a journalist from Ukraine’s Hromadske television channel, posted photographs of soldiers, some on foot, others sitting on armoured personnel carriers, moving north towards the government-held city of Artemivsk.
Debaltseve has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the near one-year conflict in eastern Ukraine as Russia-backed rebel fighters fought to seize control of the strategically important railway hub, between the breakaway cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Fatality and casualty numbers were not immediately available following the government retreat but thousands of soldiers were thought to have been surrounded and reports from the region suggested Ukraine’s army suffered heavy casualties in the run-up to the introduction of the ceasefire on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear whether the ceasefire, agreed by the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia in the Belarusian capital of Minsk last week, would hold following the events in Debaltseve.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, called the attacks by Russian-backed rebels on Debaltseve a clear violation of the ceasefire.
She added: “The EU stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue.”
But Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Mr Putin and the rebels’ claims that the Minsk ceasefire did not pertain to Debaltseve. “The actual ceasefire line runs outside of Debaltseve because this line is controlled by the rebels. The Donetsk People’s Republic leaders have said this many times,” Mr Lavrov said at a briefing in Moscow on Wednesday.
Jenifer Psaki, state department spokesperson, said the US did not yet consider the ceasefire to be “dead”. Although there had been “some violations”, she said “we don’t think the right option is to take steps that would hurt the implementation of agreement.”
However, she added that “if the separatist violence continues, if Russia and the separatists do not implement the agreement, if fighters and equipment continue to flow into Ukraine from Russia, more costs will be imposed”.
Moscow has blamed the continued violence on Debaltseve on the Ukrainian military despite the fact that it is the rebels that have encircled the city. Mr Lavrov said Russia was trying to convince the Ukrainian soldiers trapped inside Debaltseve to put down their weapons, claiming that the rebels would allow the Ukrainian soldiers to live if they exited unarmed. “A lot of [Ukrainian soldiers] have already surrendered. They are being treated humanely: they are being fed, allowed to shower, and given warm clothing.”
A four-way diplomatic telephone call was planned for later on Wednesday involving Angela Merkel, German chancellor, François Hollande, French president, Mr Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin, Russian president.
Meanwhile, Canada announced an escalation of its sanctions against Russia and the rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk following the collapse of the Ukrainian resistance in Debaltseve.
The latest advance by the rebels follows the unanimous approval of a UN Security Council resolution, proposed by Russia, on Tuesday calling on all the parties in eastern Ukraine to stop the fighting and to back the ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk last week.
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said it was “bitterly ironic” that Russia had put forward a proposal calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict given that it “continues to escalate the violence in Ukraine”.
Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said Ukraine would on Wednesday introduce “measures” to respond to the developments in Debaltseve.
Without providing detail, he stressed: “They will be completely clear and effective.”
The advance of rebels in recent months has led to increased calls in Kiev for Mr Poroshenko to declare a “state of war” and impose martial law. Such a decision would change the current status of military operations from isolated “antiterrorist” manoeuvres in eastern regions of Ukraine towards a complete mobilisation of all the country’s resources against the growing military threat.
Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington
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