Brutal Fighting Continues Near Debaltsevo, While Another Attempted Assault Reported Near Mariupol

December 23, 2016
A building in Luganskoye damaged by shelling. Photo by @kinvshchuk on December 21.

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Brutal Fighting Continues Near Debaltsevo, While Another Attempted Assault Reported Near Mariupol.

While fighting continues to rage near Debaltsevo, with reports of further casualties, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claimed today that Russia-backed forces attempted to assault a position in another area of the front line this morning, near the Azov coast.

According to the MOD, a group of Russia-backed fighters attacked an observation post near Vodyanoye, around 10 kilometers east of Mariupol.

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While the attack was repelled by Ukrainian troops, the MOD says that one Ukrainian serviceman was wounded.

Military press officer Ivan Chmil told Mariupol news site this afternoon that Russia-backed fighters had today shelled positions near Shirokino, Lebedinskoye and Vodyanoye with mortars.

According to 0629, residents in Mariupol itself could hear shelling at noon.

At noon today Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the MOD, told reporters that two Ukrainian soldiers were killed yesterday and three wounded.

The Ukrainian military claims that Russia-backed forces conducted 22 attacks yesterday.

Colonel Lysenko also described the situation near Debaltsevo, saying that Russia-backed fighters had unsuccessfully attempted to seize Ukrainian positions and had shelled residential areas of Mironovsky, near the road between Debaltsevo and government-controlled Bakhmut, with 152-mm artillery.

Yesterday, Vladimir Gorbatyuk, commander of the 54th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, which is fighting on the front line near Debaltsevo, told Hromadske TV that Russia-backed forces had made two attempts to retake positions seized during a Ukrainian counter-attack on Sunday, after Russia-backed forces tried to outflank Ukrainian troops near Svetlodarsk.

Gorbatyuk said that the positions seized by Ukrainian troops on Sunday had been used as firing positions to shell the Ukrainian flanks. He confirmed that six of his men had been killed in the fighting, but claimed that enemy losses during failed attacks had been four times higher.

Vyacheslav Voloshin, head of the press office of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told reporters this morning that Russia-backed forces had shelled Ukrainian positions near Debaltsevo six times since midnight.

There is still some confusion on the total number of casualties resulting from the battle.

Last night a Ukrainian military medic deployed near Debaltsevo reported that a Ukrainian armored vehicle, with medical markings, had been fired upon by Russia-backed forces while heading to retrieve the body of a soldier.

Yuriy Butusov, editor at Censor.NET reported this afternoon that one soldier from the 54th Brigade was killed and two wounded yesterday. The editor said that nine members of the brigade had died in battle between December 18 and 23.

Another soldier from the brigade, who was recorded as missing on Sunday evening, had, he said, been found dead. His body was evacuated. However two other soldiers’ bodies had fallen into the hands of Russia-backed fighters.

According to Butusov, negotiations are underway on the exchange of bodies. 

But while Butusov reported that the two soldiers whose bodies are held by Russia-backed fighters were killed in battle, there are also unconfirmed reports that Russian or separatist fighters have executed captured Ukrainian troops.

Volunteer Miroslav Gai, who is regularly cited by Ukrainian media, claimed yesterday that Russia-backed fighters have sent Ukrainian commanders and media outlets photographic evidence of having captured Ukrainian troops alive and then executed them.

In an interview with Gordon, Gai said that three Ukrainian soldiers had been captured on Monday, and, after unsuccessful negotiations, had been executed. 

“They killed two of the three, they sent photos with signs of terrible torture. Even those who have been at war for a long time could not stand seeing the mutilated corpses, they sobbed. Such tortures are not exactly the handiwork of the local bandits. This was done either by Russian mercenaries or newly arrived Russian army soldiers.”

Later Gai reported that the third prisoner had been killed. 

Gai wrote on Facebook that photos had been sent from a Russian email account to Ukrainian media outlets, including the 112 news channel, who had rung him to ask if he had seen the images.

Another volunteer, Semyon Kabakaev, claimed on Facebook that video of the Ukrainian soldiers, alive and in captivity, had been sent to Ukrainian troops, and that photos of their tortured bodies had later arrived. 

The Interpreter cannot confirm these reports and the Ukrainian MOD has stated that only one Ukrainian soldier has been captured.

Ukrainska Pravda has noted the possibility that Ukrainian volunteer fighters may have been captured, which would explain the denial from Ukrainian military officials, as the MOD maintains that volunteers from such groups as Pravyi Sektor are not operating on the front line despite abundant evidence to the contrary. 

Volunteer fighters are treated with particular cruelty by some Russian fighters. For example, in September, 2014, a group of fighters from the Aidar volunteer battalion were captured by Russian paramilitaries from the neo-Nazi Rusich unit in battle near Lugansk. Yan Petrovsky, a Russian who took part in their capture, boasted in an interview with a Norwegian far-right website earlier this year that he didn’t take prisoners from volunteer units. At least one of the prisoners was reportedly burnt alive after capture.

As we reported on Wednesday, several separatist propaganda outlets have released grisly footage of the bodies of three soldiers lying in the snow, purportedly Ukrainians killed in battle. 

The following day, another separatist YouTube channel uploaded a graphic video showing the bodies of three Ukrainian soldiers in a morgue in Debaltsevo. Judging from the clothing in both sets of videos, there is a strong possibility that the same men are seen. While the bodies seen in the first videos are bloody, there is no sign of mutilation.

— Pierre Vaux