Ukrainian troops and separatists battled for control of a strategic railway junction on Tuesday, with each side blaming the other for violating a weekend cease-fire meant to end 10 months of combat in eastern Ukraine.
Day’s end brought competing and unconfirmed claims about ravaged Debaltseve, with pro-Russia separatists insisting they had won control of about 80% of the city, including the railway station and police precinct.
“It was a responsive measure as we finally had to intervene and go into the town to suppress the enemy artillery installations which had been firing at us all through the night,” Eduard Basurin, chief political officer for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic armed forces, said in a phone interview. “We have to gain control over Debaltseve or the fighting will never stop as Kiev troops keep firing at us all the time.”
A Ukrainian official denied that his nation’s forces were losing ground and rejected Basurin’s claim that more than 60 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered during the fighting.
“I know of no instances of our brave soldiers surrendering to the enemy,” Alexander Motuzyanyk, spokesman for the government’s Anti-Terrorist Operation, said in a phone interview. “What is more, we are firmly holding our ground in Debaltseve and around and repelled all the attacks during the day.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Kiev and its Western allies accuse of fomenting the eastern Ukraine unrest and backing the separatists with weapons and fighters, said during a visit to Budapest on Tuesday that Washington was already sending arms to the Ukrainian government.
Asked at a joint news conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban what he thought of U.S. foreign policy advisors’ proposal to supply weapons to the embattled Ukrainian government, Putin responded that “according to our information, these weapons are already being delivered,” the Associated Press reported from the Hungarian capital.
Both the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces failed Tuesday to begin pulling back heavy weapons from the front lines, a deadline set under the cease-fire reached last week. Each had said Monday that it would not begin to pull back such arms until it saw that the other side had done so.
Pro-Russia separatists reportedly used Russian Grad missile systems and Russian tanks in the fighting in Debaltseve, a strategic link between Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions largely held by separatist fighters. Most of the residents around the city had been evacuated in recent weeks.
Debaltseve police station was partially destroyed in the attack during the day, Donetsk regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin wrote on his Facebook page.
Much of the city was in ruins or in flames, said one participant in the fighting.
“It is a house-to-house thing now, where you shoot first and then ask questions,” a Ukrainian paratrooper who goes by the code name of Fox said over the phone. He requested that he not be identified by name for security reasons.
“They are retreating now, leaving at least two bodies in the street, and when it gets darker we will make an attempt at breaking out of here and finding our battalion,” he said, speaking from a ruined house where about seven soldiers, including two “300s” – Soviet era military slag for wounded -- were holding out against a separatist unit.
The soldiers were short on food and ammunition, he said, but had set aside hand grenades to use during the attempt to break out.
Since the cease-fire negotiated last week in Minsk, Belarus went into effect early Sunday, separatist forces have fired 164 times at Ukrainian positions, Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine National Defense and Security Council, said Tuesday during a briefing in Kiev, the capital. Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and nine wounded over the preceding 24 hours, he said.
“Pro-Russia propaganda specialists are maintaining that we have already surrendered and that we are begging for a corridor” through which to retreat, he said. “In reality the situation looks different, as our adversary is losing more and more troops and hardware under the continuing fire of our artillery.”
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko discussed the volatile situation in the east with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, according to the official Ukrainian presidential website.
In his conversation with Merkel, the Ukraine leader called the separatist offensive on Debaltseve “a cynical attack on the Minsk agreements,” a statement on the website read.
“The world must stop the aggressor today,” Poroshenko was quoted as saying. “I appeal to constant members of the U.N. Security Council to prevent the further violation of the U.N. basic principles and norms and the unleashing of full-scale combat actions in the very center of Europe.”
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt blamed the separatists and Russia for violating the cease-fire.
“It is quite obvious that responsibility for nonobservance of cease-fire around Debaltseve lies with the separatists plus Russian armed units,” he wrote in Russian on his Twitter account on Tuesday.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and staff writer Loiko from Moscow.