Artemivsk: A flashpoint strategic town in east Ukraine fell Wednesday to a fierce assault by pro-Russian rebels in a serious defeat for Kiev, prompting the West to accuse Moscow of cynically exploiting an internationally-backed ceasefire.
Hundreds of exhausted government troops retreated from Debaltseve -- a strategic railway hub sandwiched between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk -- as the separatists claimed total control of the town.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to office last May vowing to crush the separatists, confirmed most of the soldiers had left Debaltseve in what he described as "a planned and organised withdrawal".
But haggard soldiers seen arriving in the neighbouring town of Artemivsk on tanks and other vehicles, or on foot, contested that characterisation.
"We didn`t hear anything about an order to pull out. We only found out about it when our heavy armour started leaving," one soldier told AFP, declining to give his name or unit.
"We should have pulled out earlier," another said bitterly.
Defence officials in Kiev said a total 2,459 soldiers left Debaltseve on Wednesday.There was no official casualty toll from the ferocious street-to-street battles that had taken place in the town since the rebels stormed it on Tuesday, but the bodies of at least 13 soldiers were seen delivered to the local morgue.
A row of makeshift coffins stood in the snow outside waiting to transport the corpses, still in camouflage uniform.
A spokesman for the rebels` military, Eduard Basurin, said the town was "completely under the control" of the insurgents, with just "scattered" pockets of resistance that were being neutralised.
Basurin claimed more than 300 government soldiers had been taken prisoner. Ukrainian officials conceded some were in rebel hands but would not say how many.
Amnesty International expressed concern about the treatment of the prisoners, noting evidence of brutality by both sides towards captives.
The situation in Debaltseve -- and the status of an estimated 5,000 civilians trapped there -- was impossible to verify. Journalists and OSCE monitors were unable to get into the town.Debaltseve`s fall dealt a heavy blow to the European-brokered truce agreed by all sides in the Belarus capital Minsk last week and endorsed by the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
The ceasefire was meant to be the first step towards quelling a conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people since erupting in April 2014.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel`s spokesman admitted in Berlin that the rebel offensive put a "heavy strain" on hopes for peace.
But France insisted the truce "was not dead".
Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko were to speak by telephone later Wednesday.
Ukraine and Western countries blame the relentless violence on Russia, which annexed Crimea in March last year and is accused of sending in troops and heavy weapons across the border to back the eastern insurgency.
They say Moscow is playing a double game of insincere diplomacy and covert support to the separatists to keep Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, destabilised and stymied in its ambitions to edge closer towards the EU and NATO.NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to "withdraw all its forces from eastern Ukraine, to stop its support for separatists and to respect the Minsk agreement".
"I am deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation in and around Debaltseve," he said in Latvia.
In Washington, the White House "strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces" and warned "the costs to Russia will rise" if the truce is further violated.
The West has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia for its perceived role in Ukraine, and the EU and Canada ratcheted their measures up further this week.
Russia denies involvement in the insurgency, though President Vladimir Putin urged the surrender of the Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve before their withdrawal.
"Obviously it`s bad to lose," Putin said during a visit to Hungary on Tuesday. "But life is life and it still goes on."