Major setback for Ukraine as troops retreat from key hub Debaltseve

Ukraine withdrew troops from the embattled railway hub of Debaltseve early Wednesday after pro-Russia rebels overran much of the town despite last week’s European-brokered cease-fire deal.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed the withdrawal. Dozens of vehicles from tanks to trucks rumbled along the road to the nearest large town, Artemivsk.

“This morning, the Armed Forces of Ukraine together with the National Guard completed the operation of the planned and organized withdrawal of units from Debaltseve,” Poroshenko said. About 80% of units have already left and another two columns were expected to leave, he said.

The retreat marks a major setback for Kiev’s forces. Steadily losing ground across much of the front line, Ukrainian commanders had vowed to hold the rail hub, which is a vital link between the separatist capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Western officials condemned the rebel offensive. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Wednesday the actions of Russia-backed rebels in Debaltseve were a “clear violation” of the cease-fire agreement and that the bloc stands ready to take “appropriate action” if such violations continue.