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Retreating Soldiers Bring Echoes of War's Chaos to a Ukrainian Town

As violence continued to plague eastern Ukraine on Thursday, demoralized Ukrainian soldiers straggled into the town of Artemivsk, griping about incompetent leadership and recounting desperate conditions and gruesome killing as they beat a haphazard retreat from the strategic town of Debaltseve.

Gunshots rang out on the central square, as many soldiers began drinking heavily. One soldier stood, swaying, on the sidewalk mumbling to himself. Others, who had escaped from Debaltseve after weeks of shelling, were seizing taxicabs without payment. It was not clear that all of them had been given places to sleep, and one group stood silently, shivering on a street outside the Hotel Ukraine.

At Biblios, an upscale restaurant, soldiers tramped about the dining room, ordering brandy that they could not afford, then firing shots into the ceiling as the paying guests quietly fled the premises.

With artillery bombardments and other fighting continuing across the region, including outside the coastal city of Mariupol, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France spoke by phone on Thursday, and reaffirmed their commitment to a cease-fire negotiated last week.

It is a goal that has eluded them for months, even as more than 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The insistence by the four leaders -- President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine, President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany -- that the cease-fire still had a chance of succeeding seemed exceedingly optimistic given the reports of shelling and artillery fire relayed by 20 monitoring teams from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the organization's monitoring mission in Ukraine, said that the cease-fire was being observed selectively at best, and he criticized the separatist forces for blocking observers from Debaltseve, where he said many civilians were trapped "in dire conditions" after a weekslong siege.

There were also warnings that the separatists, having achieved victory in Debaltseve, would continue a push to seize more territory.

"The cease-fire has to be unconditional, there's no exceptions," Mr. Bociurkiw said at a news conference in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. "As far as the special monitoring mission is concerned, we expect unfettered and safe and secure access."

None of the provisions of the peace accord, forged during a marathon overnight negotiating session last week in Minsk, Belarus, have been accomplished according to the agreement's terms and timeline.

There has been no halt in fighting. A Tuesday deadline for beginning the withdrawal of heavy weaponry came and went, with shells and rockets still falling. And there has been no apparent movement toward a release of prisoners.

Mr. Bociurkiw, at the news conference, said that the combatants were not entitled to pick and choose those provisions of the cease-fire accord they wished to fulfill.

"The Minsk documents are not a shopping list," he said. "It's one integrated whole."

Mr. Bociurkiw also read from a statement by the chief of the monitoring mission, Ertugrul Apakan, a Turkish diplomat, who said he was "profoundly disturbed" by the events at Debaltseve, especially the civilian casualties.

Mr. Apakan also said he "condemned any attempts to create new facts on the ground and so to change the basis on which the latest package of Minsk measures were agreed on."

The number of dead in and around Debaltseve was a politically charged subject, as was reflected in the widely differing estimates of that number: in the thousands, according to the pro-Russian separatists; at least 13 soldiers killed, 157 wounded, more than 90 captured and at least 82 missing, by the government's preliminary count.

Witnesses said the number of dead would likely grow considerably.

In a statement defending his decision to order the withdrawal from Debaltseve, Mr. Poroshenko said that 2,475 soldiers had been safely pulled out, along with 200 military vehicles.

A spokesman for the Defense Ministry of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Eduard Basurin, said that separatist fighters had counted 57 bodies of Ukrainian soldiers on the ground in Debaltseve.

Speaking at a news conference in the eastern city of Donetsk, Mr. Basurin said that monitors from the O.S.C.E. would be allowed into Debaltseve on Saturday, once it was certain that there were no Ukrainian troops left.

Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian military officer and member of Parliament, said there were signs that separatist forces would try to seize additional territory. In a posting on Facebook, Mr. Tymchuk said it appeared the separatists were preparing to advance north from Debaltseve.

After the telephone call between the four leaders on Thursday, Mr. Poroshenko's office said that he had told his counterparts, "Do not pretend that what happened in Debaltseve corresponds to the Minsk arrangements."

His comments, however, only highlighted how Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Putin have continued to view the conflict through vastly different lenses, and often with completely contradictory assessments of the facts on the ground.

The Kremlin, accused by the West of financing, arming, training and leading the rebel resistance, offered a positive assessment of recent days' events.

"It was noted that the measures approved by the contact group in Minsk helped allow a reduction in the intensity of fighting in Donbass and reduced the number of civilian casualties," the Kremlin said in a statement, using the shorthand term for Donetsk Basin, as the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine is commonly known.

The Kremlin said the leaders had agreed that the foreign ministers of the four countries would begin consultations "in the nearest future" about implementing the terms of the cease-fire -- further indication of Russia's view that the peace agreement remained on track. Germany also issued a generally positive statement.

"They agreed that for this it is necessary to take immediate concrete steps for the comprehensive implementation of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons under the monitoring of the O.S.C.E.," the German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.

In Washington, the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, offered a rather different assessment, in which she blamed Russia and the separatists for the breaches in the cease-fire.

"If Russia and the separatists it backs continue to flout the agreements they signed, it will result in more costs and further isolation," Ms. Psaki said.

In Artemvisk, the toll of battle was on vivid display, as soldiers numbed themselves with drink, many standing on streets holding beer bottles and their rifles.

At one point, a tank was driving in circles on the city commons, Artemivsk Square.

"The guys are unwinding," said one visibly drunk soldier, standing on a corner late at night, still in the muddy uniform he wore escaping from Debaltseve. "What do you expect after a battle?"

[Source: By Andrew E. Kramer and David M. Herszenhorn, The New York Times, Artemivsk, Ukr, 19Feb15]

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