Where to Go?
DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (AP) — Outgoing heavy-caliber fire boomed incessantly, shaking the ground and rattling windows around the besieged town. Residents of Debaltseve, seemingly inured to the racket, listened impassively as they mustered at the town hall on Saturday to be evacuated with as many belongings as they could carry.
The government-held town has been without power, water and gas for at least 10 days, prompting many to flee from an intense artillery duel between government and Russian-backed separatist forces. Almost every one of the largely deserted streets in the center showed signs of having been struck by projectiles.
A month of relative quiet in eastern Ukraine was shattered in early January by full-blown fighting as the separatists attempted to claw back additional territory from government hands. Rebel leaders accused Ukraine of mobilizing its forces in advance of an imminent offensive.
Efforts to hold talks on halting the escalating violence have to date been unsuccessful.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a telephone conversation, all expressed hope that negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, will focus on a cease-fire and pulling out heavy weaponry from residential areas, the Kremlin said.
However, representatives for the rebels, Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe left the government compound late evening on Saturday after spending four hours behind closed doors.
Ukraine's envoy, Leonid Kuchma, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the talks were derailed after the rebel representatives "refused to discuss steps to bring a complete cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Saturday that 1,000 residents have been evacuated in the past days from Debaltseve. But the number of crammed civilian vehicles seen speeding out of the town's rutted, icy roads over the past few days suggests official figures may be on the conservative side.
"Six buses shuttle (refugees) from there and they constantly come under fire," Yatsenyuk said in comments carried by his press office. "As soon as they (the rebels) see that we are evacuating the people, they open fire."