Feb 19, 2015 5:40 AM
Debaltseve under rebel control, Cossacks predominate
The Associated Press
DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (AP) Debaltseve appeared to be largely under the control of rebels Thursday, a day after Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from the besieged town.
Associated Press journalists who drove around about half the town found that all neighborhoods were under the control of rebel fighters, most of them appearing to be Cossacks.
Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader who has been a prominent warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, was seen driving around in a Humvee-like vehicle that had been captured from Ukrainian troops.
Cossack fighters laughed, hugged each other and posed for photos.
But one car carrying Cossacks hit a land mine about 200 meters from the journalists, killing one Cossack and injuring one other.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said Thursday that more than 90 percent of its forces have been withdrawn from Debaltseve and its surroundings, but left unclear when the retreat might be completed.
Military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh also said that rebels heavily shelled a village on the outskirts of the port city of Mariupol during the last day.
Ukrainian troops began abandoning Debaltseve on Wednesday after weeks of heavy fighting. Control of the town is a significant strategic gain for the rebels because it is a railway junction and straddles the most direct route between Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist region's two major cities.
The battle for Debaltseve had continued to rage despite a cease-fire that was called into effect on Sunday.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke Thursday with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia about cease-fire violations and their consequences.
He did not elaborate on the discussion.