(Reuters) – Pro-Russian rebels appeared to be in full control on Wednesday of one of the towns that has been a principal target of their advance, as they attempt to surround a nearby garrison of Ukrainian forces.
The apparent fall of the town of Vuhlehirsk would be a setback for Kiev, which has been trying to defend it and the larger neighboring town of Debaltseve, an important rail hub, from encirclement by advancing rebels.
A military spokesman in the capital said Vuhlehirsk was still contested. But Reuters journalists on the ground were freely able to enter about 60 percent of it and saw no sign of areas controlled by Ukrainian troops. Rebels patrolled casually and were in a boisterous mood, using positions in the town to fire artillery on Debaltseve.
Kiev’s Western allies are alarmed over the rebel advance in recent weeks, which scuppered a five-month-old ceasefire. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Kiev on Thursday amid talk that Washington might begin to provide weapons to the Ukrainian government for the first time.
In Vuhlehirsk, shattered from the combat, metal worker Sergey Kopun, 50, dressed in dirty blue overalls, walked out from a cellar where he had been hiding for days with his wife and quadriplegic mother.
“Someone should come to remove these corpses, it is inhumane to leave them here to rot,” he said.
About 300 meters (yards) away at least four bodies of soldiers with Ukrainian shoulder patches were scattered inside a garden of what appeared to be a restaurant.
“They had a good firing point here. We had to use anti-tank weapons to blast our way into this garden,” said a rebel commander in his 50s who gave his name as Ironside.
The town, with around 9,000 people before the war, has been one of the main targets of the rebel advance, sitting in a pocket of government-held territory surrounded on three sides by rebel territory and straddling road and rail routes linking major rebel strongholds.
Ukrainian forces are still holed up in neighboring Debaltseve, a major rail town of about three times the size and an important stopping point for goods traffic by rail from Russia. Taking the two would link up the main rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Fighting in a war which has already killed more than 5,000 people has reached an intensity unseen since before a ceasefire in September. An attempt to revive peace talks collapsed on Saturday.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of arming and funding the rebels and backing the latest advance with Russian troops on the ground. Moscow denies any involvement.