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Ukraine loses key town to separatists despite cease-fire

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    As we reported earlier, thousands of Ukrainian troops withdrew today from Debaltseve in Eastern Ukraine after a relentless assault by Russian-backed separatists.

    Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reports from near the key transit hub, as the three-day-old cease-fire appeared to be unraveling.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    The rebel flag hoisted over Debaltseve today, and across the day, hundreds of Ukrainian troops have been leaving town, telling stories that speak of just one word: defeat.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    It was very heavy. We couldn't even go to take food or water. Yes, we were urinating in a can, all the time we were sitting in the bunker very, very heavy shelling. We were praying all the time and said goodbye to our lives a hundred times. They had really good and heavy artillery.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Kiev says it is a tactical withdrawal with heavy weapons. But its president is begging the world to act.

  • PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine (through interpreter):

    Today, we have taken new defensive lines. And during my talks with the leaders of the United States of America and the European Union, we demanded a hard-line response by the world to the brutal violation of the Minsk agreements by Russia, of the cease-fire regime, for the beginning of withdrawal of the armaments. And we will prepare organized and coordinated actions.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    The Russian line: This town was already surrounded and thus not part of the Minsk peace deal. Kiev has only itself to blame.

    We headed north from Donetsk this morning, and we were not alone. Days after heavy weapons should have moved back, the rebels were moving forward.

    (GUNFIRE)

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Even into the afternoon, pro-Russian rebels firing into Debaltseve.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    As you can see, there's fighting. We're taking positions back from them. Apart from that, everything is fine.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Fine is a relative term here. Vuhlehirsk, like so many other places, tells its own story of the recent days and weeks of fighting.

  • YEVDAKIYA TIMOFEYEVNA, Ukraine (through interpreter):

    Our house is divided in two. Mine is OK, but my neighbor's is destroyed.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Tanks and armored fighting vehicles litter the streets of this town. We're about three miles from Debaltseve itself. It's down that road there where the man on the bicycle is going. The intermittent sounds of shelling all morning indicate that the fight for that town is still very much under way.

    Kiev says tonight around 80 percent of their forces have left Debaltseve. On the streets of Vuhlehirsk, they have written them a message. The message on the gun barrel reads, "Send this souvenir to Kiev, to Poroshenko, and to their American and European backers."

    You can't stay long in these places. We needed to leave. But then we met Victor, dragging his coal home.

  • VICTOR SERGEYEVICH, Ukraine (through interpreter):

    I was born here and I will die here.

    (GUNFIRE)

  • VICTOR SERGEYEVICH (through interpreter):

    Why are you scared? I'm Victor Sergeyevich.

  • QUESTION:

    Just tell me, how is your house? Is it intact?

  • VICTOR SERGEYEVICH (through interpreter):

    Well, thank God it's still there. I have no idea what's next. We live day to day. War has never made anything beautiful for anyone. First, the children die because they're curious and they're foolish, and then the older people.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    And Victor, like so many here, has seen that brutal truth proved again before his eyes.

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