February 28, 2015 / 4:08 PM / in 3 years

Ruins and recriminations after rebel advance on two east Ukrainian towns

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (Reuters) - Sergei, a tired-looking man in his twenties, loads his bike with a tin of coal, the only thing of value he has salvaged from his destroyed house - now a rubble of gray bricks after Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels fought over his hometown.

Woman walks past a house which was damaged by fighting in the town of Debaltseve February 25, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Moscow-backed separatists stormed the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve nearly two weeks ago, in one of the most dramatic advances by the rebels since the start of the 10-month-old war.

Sergei had the misfortune of living on the outskirts of town near the Ukrainian army’s field camp which was destroyed during the attack, along with the modest one-storey brick houses lining the nearby streets.

Sergei’s house was hit on Feb. 18, right before Ukrainian forces left Debaltseve.

Asked if he knew which side attacked his house, he replied: “Of course, it’s clear. I won’t say it out loud. The other side entered and shelling stopped. Not a single shell landed after that.”

Most residents of the town interviewed by Reuters supported the rebels and blamed the Ukrainian army for the destruction.

But Sergei, asked if he thought the rebels were responsible, answered: “Of course. But I don’t get it. Why did they do it?”

Fighting over the railway hub of Debaltseve intensified in the days following a ceasefire deal meant to have taken effect on Feb. 15. Rebels who had encircled the town launched a massive assault, routing all Ukrainian forces by Feb. 18.

Kiev and Western governments have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the separatists in east Ukraine, despite the peace deal agreed in the Belarussian capital Minsk. Moscow has denied this.

Separatist commanders said the advance at Debaltseve was necessary to “straighten the frontline” and ease communications between their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The battle for the town caught civilians in the crossfire on a scale not yet seen in the war that has killed nearly 6,000 people. Most residential buildings in the town have been damaged by shelling or are burnt out.

Nearly a week after the retreat of Ukrainian forces, bodies and body parts still lay uncollected on the streets and outside the town.

In neighboring Vuhlehirsk, conquered by the rebels before Debaltseve, a Reuters team found smashed armored vehicles with the insignia of the Ukrainian army, and heavy damage to almost every building in the town.

MISSED TARGETS

Ukrainian military leaders and separatist commanders alike insist they never target residential areas. But rank-and-file fighters from both sides admit they used heavy weapons while fighting over the towns and could have missed targets.

Next to the ruins of Sergei’s house, a rebel gunman nicknamed Shuya was on guard at the destroyed Ukrainian camp, littered with ammunition boxes, pieces of burnt-out vehicles and unexploded shells.

“It was tanks, artillery ... I will be honest, the camp was hit very well,” he said with a smile.

Another separatist fighter, who gave his nickname as Zelya, conceded it was possible they missed targets during the attack.

“Debaltseve is in a lowland. They (the Ukrainians) put their artillery there, it was hard to hit right on target,” he said.

While the rebels were attacking Debaltseve after the official start of ceasefire, a Reuters team witnessed five howitzers fired towards Debaltseve from Vuhlehirsk.

The rebels did not permit anyone to film them. Reuters reporters heard constant outgoing artillery rounds from other rebel-controlled areas around Debaltseve, sometimes reaching the intensity of one volley per minute.

The Ukrainian side also used heavy weapons in town, a member of a Ukrainian artillery crew, who gave his name as Nikolai, told Reuters after the retreat from Debaltseve.

“We got shelled every day, we sat in trenches ... We also fired, of course,” said the soldier who serves in the 55th brigade.

But according to his comrade who used the nickname Prapor, many areas that are now heavily damaged had been unscathed when Ukrainian forces retreated.

“We left Vuhlehirsk without any fighting... and many villages too. It should be investigated who took advantage of it,” he said.

Government troops began towing artillery away from the front line on Thursday, a sign the truce could at last be taking effect.

“THIS IS A WAR”

Four kilometers from Sergei’s house lies a small village called Lohvynove which saw heavy fighting as the rebels captured positions around Debaltseve to prepare their big assault.

None of the houses in the village survived the fighting and all the residents have fled.

The hulks of three rebel tanks lay on the battlefield. One of the rebels who gave his name as Zem pointed to a spot on the ground where his comrade had been killed.

Asked why Debaltseve and its residents suffered such devastation he replied: “Because it was an advance. We shelled it with everything ... This is a war.”

Additional reporting by Alexander Shpigunov in Artyomivsk, Anton Zverev in Vuhlehirsk, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev. Editing by Rosalind Russell

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