Despite Ukraine Truce, a Battle That Continues
ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine — A battle for a railroad town in eastern Ukraine escalated sharply on Tuesday, with both the Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed militants saying that their soldiers were engaging in pitched street battles.
By midday, the separatists said they had captured the town, Debaltseve, a separatist news agency reported. The Ukrainian military denied that, saying it was repelling the attacks.
“An intense fight is underway now on the outskirts of Debaltseve,” Ukraine’s military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. “There are engagements near the train station. But our soldiers are holding their positions, and they have full authority to return fire.”
Either way, the fighting in and around Debaltseve threatened to unravel a cease-fire that took effect on Sunday.
As many as 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers are holed up in the city, a rail hub connecting the capitals of the two rebel regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. Rebels have reportedly sent text messages to phones in the town, telling the soldiers that they have been abandoned and should surrender.
The Ukrainian government maintains that the town was not surrounded before the cease-fire took effect, and that European monitors of the truce should insist that the separatist forces halt their offensive and open a corridor to evacuate the wounded.
The main rebel group, the Donetsk People’s Republic, has said it will not observe the agreement in Debaltseve, saying that it was encircled before the cease-fire began and that it is therefore now an internal region in its enclave, not a section of the front.
The only resupply road into Debaltseve is mined, in range of rebel artillery and at times held by pro-Russian infantry. On Friday, eight Ukrainian soldiers reportedly escaped on foot through the fields, and on Sunday, a dozen or so made it out in a truck.
On Tuesday, however, Ukrainian rocket-launching trucks and tanks were barreling down the resupply road toward the fighting, though the cease-fire required both sides to withdraw heavy weaponry starting at midnight Monday.
Rebel shelling was hitting points up and down the resupply road on Tuesday. A shell struck a gas pipeline beside the highway, and it burned unabated in a gigantic twirl of orange flame.
An artillery barrage sent black smoke rising from a checkpoint by a critical and already damaged bridge, and tank crews scrambling.
“They are shooting at us,” one soldier at a checkpoint on the route said as the booms of both outgoing and incoming artillery echoed from miles around.
“Where’s the help from America?” he asked. “We are poor and cannot fight the Russians alone.”
Another soldier scoffed at the idea that a few American weapons could help. The United States and Europe should force Russia to observe the cease-fire, he said. “We don’t need weapons,” he said, “we need peace.”