With Debaltseve under rebel control, Cossack fighters celebrate

A pro-Russia rebel holds a flag of the rebel-held city of Luhansk in Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on Thursday. (Peter Leonard ~ Associated Press)

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine -- Rebel fighters, many of them Cossacks, roamed the streets of Debaltseve on Thursday, 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 Thursday around about half of the key rail hub that has been the focus of weeks of fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and government troops. They found all its neighborhoods under the control of rebel fighters.

On the road out of town, dozens of Ukrainian military vehicles were retreating to the government-held town of Artemivsk. Many were riddled with bullet holes or had their windshields destroyed. Soldiers in them spoke of enduring weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, barrages designed to annihilate their ranks.

As rebels waved separatist flags in Debaltseve, Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader and prominent warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, drove around in a Humvee-like vehicle captured from Ukrainian troops.

Civilians milled about on debris-littered streets in devastated residential areas, some thanking the rebel fighters.

But in a reminder of the dangers of the area, one car carrying Cossacks hit a land mine 200 yards from the AP journalists, killing one Cossack and injuring one other. Cossacks are members of a semi-military group that traditionally guarded the far-flung outposts of the Russian empire.

Ukrainian troops began abandoning Debaltseve on Wednesday after weeks of heavy fighting, and by Thursday said more than 90 percent of its forces had been withdrawn. Capturing the town is a significant military victory for the rebels because it's a railway junction that straddles the most direct route between Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatists' two main cities.

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