Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko has said government forces are withdrawing from the besieged eastern town of Debaltseve.
Poroshenko said on Wednesday that 80 percent of Ukraine forces have withdrawn and another two columns were preparing to leave the town – a key transport hub which government forces and pro-Russian separatists have waged a lengthy battle to control.
“This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organised withdrawal from Debaltseve,” Poroshenko said in an audio message released by his press service.
Earlier, pro-government forces had reported the retreat was underway.
“The withdrawal of forces from Debaltseve is taking place in a planned and organised way,” said Semen Semenchenko, a parliamentary deputy who heads the pro-government Donbass paramilitary unit.
“The enemy is trying to cut the roads and prevent the exit of the troops,” he said on social media platform Facebook.
Separatist press service DAN cited a pro-Russian rebel official on Wednesday as claiming that hundreds of government troops were surrendering to pro-Russian separatist forces in Debaltseve.
“In Debaltseve there is a massive surrender of weapons by [Ukraine] forces. These people number in the hundreds,” DAN quoted Maksim Leshchenko as saying.
Prior to Poroshenko’s announcement, Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from just outside Debaltseve, said there were plumes of black smoke over the town and it appeared that fighting was ongoing.
“It is a bloody nose for the Ukrainian military, if they lose this town,” he said.
Our correspondent added that losing the town would indicate that Ukraine forces were unable to fend off a sustained attack from pro-Russian forces.
“To lose it would be both a strategic loss and a loss from a morale point of view,” he said.
Putin says surrender
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Kiev on Tuesday to allow its soldiers to surrender to the separatists who fought their way into the town of Debaltseve, encircling thousands of government troops.
A UN resolution to support the Ukraine ceasefire on Tuesday was not expected to have a significant impact on the peace deal that was reached in the Belarusian capital Minsk last week – with both sides failing to begin pulling back heavy weapons as required.
The war in eastern Ukraine has already killed more than 5,600 people and displaced more than a million, the United Nations said on Monday. It has also left the country’s industrial heartland in ruins.