DEBALTSEVE: Rebel fighters, many of them Cossacks, roamed the streets of Debaltseve today, a day after Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from the besieged town. The mood was celebratory, with fighters laughing, hugging each other and posing for photos.
Associated Press journalists drove today around half of the town that has been a focal point for weeks of fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, finding all its neighborhoods under the control of rebel fighters.
Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader and prominent warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle that had been captured from Ukrainian troops. Other rebels were seen waving separatist flags.
All around lay the wrecked remains of Ukrainian armored vehicles. A government encampment near a crossroads lay deserted and rebel fighters searched through its bunkers and abandoned tents, looking to salvage equipment and clothing left behind.
Two fighters inspected a tank left behind by Ukrainians that they described as a "gift" from the government troops.
They then grabbed a bloodied blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag lying next to the tank and ground it into the frozen earth with their boots. But in a reminder of the dangers of the area, one car carrying Cossacks hit a land mine 200 meters (yards) from the AP journalists, killing one Cossack and injuring one other.
On debris-littered streets in devastated residential areas, civilians milled about. Some thanked the rebel fighters.
Ukrainian troops began abandoning Debaltseve yesterday after weeks of heavy fighting. A Ukrainian military spokesman said Thursday that more than 90 percent of its forces have been withdrawn from Debaltseve and its surroundings, but left unclear when the retreat might be completed.
The town is significant for the rebels because it's a railway junction that straddles the most direct route between Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist region's two main cities.
However, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said today the three-week siege had left the town's infrastructure in ruins.
"A strategic rail hub has stopped its existence the way it was," he said in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
A statement from Ukraine's military general staff said 13 soldiers were killed and 157 wounded by artillery fire during the withdrawal. More than 90 soldiers were taken prisoner during the battle for Debaltseve and the whereabouts of 82 others are unclear, it said.