Ukrainian city residents flee as humanitarian crisis worsens

Kiev, Jan 29 (IANS/EFE) Residents of Debaltsevo, the strategic Ukrainian city contested by pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian Army, began to abandon their homes Thursday as the humanitarian situation in their city continued to worsen.

About 100 people, mostly pensioners and families with children, assembled Thursday morning in front of the city hall to be transferred by buses made available by volunteers from the Donbass-SOS humanitarian organisation.
According to accounts appearing in the local media, heavy bombardments were continuing for the 10th consecutive day, causing a number of fatalities and major damage to infrastructure in the devastated city.
Lack of electricity, heating and water forced residents to prepare their meals on the streets in intervals between shell barrages.
They were also forced to look for shelter in the basements of their homes, according to media reports.
The scant humanitarian aid arriving overland in the city, dodging gunfire and artillery battles between the warring parties, appears to be running out, residents said.
Debaltsevo has an important railway network and a strategic position on the roads between Donetsk and Lugansk.
Pro-Russian separatists have mobilised around 2,500 fighters in the city in an attempt to encircle the government forces.
According to the Military Command in Kiev, pro-Russian insurgents are supported by 35 tanks, 55 armoured vehicles, more than 50 artillery pieces and 22 rocket launchers.
If Debaltsevo falls into the hands of pro-Russian militias, it will allow them to join forces and form a well-connected front line, which would roll back to the situation of the middle of last year when the conflict began in eastern Ukraine.
According to the separatist commanders, Ukrainian forces started to withdraw after sustaining heavy losses in locations near Debaltsevo.
Since the outbreak of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine last April, more than 5000 people have been killed, while hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have had to flee their homes to escape the fighting.