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Civilians In Debaltsevo Flee Russian-Backed Separatists


So much for the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. We've told you in recent days that cease-fire barely deserved the name, as artillery shells landed on civilians. Now Russian-backed separatists have launched an offensive. Civilians are fleeing their homes. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from eastern Ukraine to talk about the situation. And, Corey, what are the separatists attacking?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, they're attacking right now a town called Debaltseve. It's strategically important for the Ukrainians because it's a hub for railway lines and roads in this region. And right now, it's controlled by Ukrainian troops. But if you look on a military map, you could see that it's a finger of territory that extends down into land that's mostly controlled by the separatists.

We tried to get in there yesterday. The troops at the checkpoints we passed warned us that it was really dangerous. The road itself was empty of civilian vehicles. We did see Ukrainian army trucks going in with soldiers and supplies and then empty trucks coming back out. So they're obviously really determined to hang on to this. About 15 kilometers from the town, we started hearing artillery fire and very heavy artillery fire, I might add. So we decided not to push on. Later in the day, I talked with a Ukrainian TV journalist who had gotten out of there earlier, and he said the place was under near constant shelling, and everybody there was taking shelter in the cellars.

INSKEEP: And we should mention this may be part of a broader offensive. The Associated Press is reporting that Ukrainian officials admit that they've lost control of at least one other town that's been overrun by tanks here, not a minor operation. And, Corey, if journalists cannot move around in this situation, particularly in this town you are trying to get to, I suppose civilians must be stuck as well.

FLINTOFF: Yeah. In a situation like this, of course, it's dangerous for them to stay in place. But it's also really risky to move and especially when large numbers of people are trying to move. I talked to a Ukrainian military officer who's working with civilian relief groups. He says they managed to get about 125 people out in buses yesterday. But they've been having trouble getting more buses in there. And the worry, obviously, is that people could be hit as they're trying to load up the buses.

INSKEEP: Why didn't people flee earlier?

FLINTOFF: We got some sense of that just yesterday. Even though we didn't make it all the way to Debaltseve, we stopped in a small town that's close by. In fact, it would probably be the next town to fall if the separatists take control of Debaltseve. And we talked to several people on the street there. They told us that about half the population has already gone. The people who are left say they're stuck for several reasons. One man we talked to said he has no car. So he'd have to leave most of his possessions behind if he left. Some people say they're afraid that if they left, their apartments would be looted. And, you know, we're talking about people who don't have very much to begin with. So if they left, they're afraid that they'd be just totally destitute.

INSKEEP: NPR's Corey Flintoff is reporting on fighting in eastern Ukraine. Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's follow up on another story on Ukraine. Yesterday, we told you of Europe's struggle to keep pressure on Russia. All European Union nations have to agree on sanctions, and a new government in Greece spoke of using its veto power to block an extension of those sanctions. Now we can tell you the Greek leaders backed down and voted to support sanctions after all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.