KIEV: Ukraine lost 179 troops in a month-long battle with pro-Russian rebels that ended in defeat over the key eastern town of Debaltseve, an advisor to the country’s president said.
If the figure is confirmed, it would represent one of the bloodiest losses suffered by the Ukrainian side in the 10-month conflict.
Kiev has officially given a toll of 13 soldiers killed on Tuesday and Wednesday, when Debaltseve was overrun by the pro-Russian separatists in defiance of a UN-backed truce.
The advisor, Yuri Biryukov, said in a Facebook post late Friday that in the month between January 18 and February 18, an estimated 179 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Debaltseve.
He confirmed Kiev’s official count that 110 soldiers were captured by the rebels, but said another 81 were missing.
“One hundred and seventy-nine fell (died) over the month.
In fact it will be more than that, some of the missing will inevitably be dead,” Biryukov wrote.
The rebels have said they found the bodies of 57 soldiers after they took control of Debaltseve, along with many abandoned weapons including 28 tanks.
They said they had taken hundreds of troops prisoner.
Some 2,500 soldiers made it out of the town.
Biryukov said the rebels overwhelmed the town by throwing “five to seven times” more fighters at it than the number of troops inside.
Journalists who entered the town after the rebel offensive found a shattered landscape of burnt-out army vehicles, craters and shell-shocked civilians who had sheltered in cellars.
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko had claimed the retreat from Debaltseve on Wednesday was “orderly” and organised.
But surviving soldiers contradicted that and spoke of a sudden and mad race out of the town under heavy fire.
The defeat has generated loud criticism in Ukraine against Poroshenko’s military commanders, with many soldiers and civilians accusing them of incompetence by keeping troops in Debaltseve well after it became clear that it was virtually surrounded by the rebels.
The United States and European Union have called the rebel rout of Ukraine forces in the town a “clear violation” of the ceasefire meant to have been in effect since February 15, and accused Russia of playing a direct role in the insurgency.
However the West is maintaining its support of the truce, hoping it will eventually take effect and cool Ukraine’s conflict.
There is little appetite, especially in EU states, for punitive action that could lead to a further escalation of the fighting.