‘It’s Capture or Death’: Truce on shaky ground

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from The Wall Street Journal,

After days of Russia-backed rebel attacks, soldiers fled by tank, truck or on foot.

Nine hours after a cease-fire was supposed to take effect, rockets and mortars slammed into Ukrainian army Lt. Yuriy Brekharya ’s redoubt outside the besieged city of Debaltseve “like never before,” he said.

Three days of relentless pounding later, he appealed to a neighboring commander for help after advancing Russia-backed separatists destroyed his unit’s final armored vehicle.

“Buddy, I’ve got nothing to help you with,” came the reply.

The retreat was a major blow to Ukraine’s pro-Western government and President Petro Poroshenko, who had insisted the army would hold the strategic rail hub. It was at times chaotic, bloody and, many soldiers said, came much too late. Soldiers said they had to leave many dead behind.

But the retreat could remove the main immediate point of contention between the two sides, which have largely stopped fighting along the rest of the front since the latest cease-fire deal took effect Sunday.

Mr. Poroshenko said the retreat had been “orderly and preplanned” and that his forces had fulfilled their mission: to hold the city through last week’s peace talks and afterward to strengthen Kiev’s negotiating position.

Russia and the rebels—who say the area around Debaltseve isn’t covered by the cease-fire—said that the European-brokered truce was holding. Separatist commanders said they were moving ahead with the next step mandated under the deal, a pullback of heavy weapons from the front line.

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