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Ukraine president: 6 killed, 100 hurt in pullout from embattled town

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine -- Ukraine's president says six servicemen were killed during the withdrawal from the fiercely contested town of Debaltseve.

The Interfax news agency also cited Petro Poroshenko as telling a meeting of the national security council late Wednesday that more than 100 were injured in the pullout.

Poroshenko earlier in the day announced the withdrawal from the town where Ukrainian forces had been under intense siege from Russia-backed separatist rebels.

He told the security council that, in total, nearly 2,500 servicemen left the town.

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Smoke is seen as a tank of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic Army starts its engine at a checkpoint on the road from the town of Vuhlehirsk to Debaltseve February 18, 2015.
REUTERS

Associated Press reporters saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons Wednesday morning from the town in eastern Ukraine, covered in dirt and looking exhausted. Some were driving to the nearby town of Artemivsk in trucks while several others, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot.

One soldier said they had not been able to get food or water because of the intense rebel shelling. A third spoke of hunkering down in bunkers for hours, unable to even go to the toilet because of the shelling. They smoked cigarettes in the frigid winter air and gratefully accepted plastic cups of tea given to them by locals.

"We're very happy to be here," the hungry soldier told the AP. "We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times."

Russian Channel One showed the rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve. Russian state-owned television also showed images of several dozen captured Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels.

Semyon Semenchenko, a volunteer battalion commander and a member of the Ukrainian parliament who was highly critical of the government's decision to retreat, said in a statement that 167 injured soldiers have been evacuated from Debaltseve.

Poroshenko sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that "laid shame on Russia." He denied reports of large Ukrainian casualties and rebel claims of many soldiers captured, saying troops were leaving Debaltseve with their weapons and ammunition. He said the army had withdrawn 80 percent of its troops from the town by Wednesday morning and two more columns had yet to leave.

"Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner," he said in televised comments.

"The Ukrainian troops... gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them," Poroshenko said at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to "shake the hands" of the soldiers leaving Debaltseve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit Tuesday to Budapest, had urged Kiev to admit defeat in the contested town, saying "the only choice" of the Ukrainian troops was to "leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender."

CBS News' Clarissa Ward reported that Putin also claimed the U.S. was already supplying Ukrainian forces with weapons, and warned no good could come of the tactic. The Obama administration says it is still debating whether or not to provide Kiev with lethal military aid in the fight against the separatists.

Despite reports of Ukrainian forces giving up the fight for Debaltseve, rebel artillery and rocket fire were still being shot at the town at regular intervals Wednesday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused the separatists of refusing to respect a cease-fire agreement and urged Russia "to end support for separatists and to withdraw forces and military equipment from eastern Ukraine." Russia has denied supplying the separatists with troops and weapons, a claim scoffed at by Western nations and Ukraine, who point to NATO satellite pictures of Russian weapons in eastern Ukraine.