ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine —
After weeks of relentless fighting, the embattled Ukrainian rail hub of Debaltseve fell Wednesday to Russia-backed separatists, who hoisted a flag in triumph over the town. The Ukrainian president confirmed that he had ordered troops to pull out and the rebels reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive.
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 spoke of heavy government losses, while another 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.
By Wednesday morning, the army had withdrawn 80 percent of its troops from the town and two more columns had yet to leave, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said. In face-saving comments, he denied claims by the rebels that the Ukrainians were surrounded and said the troops were leaving Debaltseve with their weapons and ammunition.
"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. He denied reports of large Ukrainian casualties and hundreds of soldiers captured.
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."
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.
Poroshenko sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that "laid shame on Russia, which called on the Ukrainian troops yesterday to lay down arms, raise the white flag and surrender.
"The Ukrainian troops... gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them," he said at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to "shake the hands" of the soldiers leaving Debaltseve.
Russian state-owned television showed images Wednesday of several dozen Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels.
The withdrawal attracted fierce criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians as well as from the commanders of volunteer battalions fighting alongside government troops. Semyon Semenchenko, a battalion commander and a member of parliament, on Facebook accused the military command of betraying the country's interests in Debaltseve.
"We had enough forces and means," he said. "The problem is the command and coordination. They are as bad as can be."
The fierce fighting around Debaltseve, which links the two major separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, had raged on despite a cease-fire deal brokered by European leaders which took effect Sunday.
Some retreating troops said Wednesday they had not received any reinforcements from the government in Debaltseve and had been walking and retreating for a whole day. One Ukrainian soldier who introduced himself only as Nikolai said he was not even sure if his unit was retreating or being rotated out of Debaltseve.
"I don't know, our commanders didn't tell us whether it's retreat or just rotation," he said. "They just told us to change our positions because our unit had been staying there for quite a long time and we had sustained quite big losses."
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who negotiated the cease-fire deal last week are expected to talk about its implementation later Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Wednesday accused the Russian-backed rebels in Debaltseve of acting "in clear violation of the cease-fire."
"Russia and the separatists have to immediately and fully implement the commitments agreed to in Minsk, in line with yesterday's U.N. Security Council resolution, starting with the respect of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of all heavy weapons," Mogherini said in a statement.
In Berlin, the German government condemned rebels' advance on Debaltseve. Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert described the onslaught as "a serious strain on the (Minsk cease-fire) agreement as well as hopes for peace in eastern Ukraine."
Elsewhere in the conflict zone, rebel leaders said Wednesday that they had begun withdrawing heavy weaponry from parts of the front line where the cease-fire was holding. Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that rebels were pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, on the road to the government-controlled port of Mariupol.
"This is the first step," Basurin said. "We're not waiting for Ukraine to start pulling back the weaponry together with us."
Observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, have tried to get to Debaltseve since Sunday but have been blocked by the rebels. The separatists' Donetsk News Agency quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko saying the OSCE will be allowed to visit Debaltseve "soon."
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Peter Leonard in Vuhlehirsk, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.