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Rebels, Ukraine govt forces jointly evacuate war-hit town

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — In the freezing, muddy winter that plagues eastern Ukraine, dozens of buses rolled down a highway Friday, bringing a glimmer of hope to those trapped for weeks in the crossfire of a relentless war.

The government-held town of Debaltseve, a key railway junction, has been the epicenter of recent battles between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. For two weeks, the town has been pounded by intense shelling that knocked out power, heat and running water in the dead of winter.

Separatist fighters have made advances, taking Vuhlehirsk, a rural settlement to the west, as they sought to capture Debaltseve, which links by rail their two main strongholds, the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

On Friday, in a move not seen before in this war, the two sides briefly ceased hostilities to jointly evacuate the few thousand civilian residents still remaining. Dozens of buses traveled in convoys to Debaltseve from both rebel and government territory to ferry locals away from danger.

"We agreed with the Ukrainian authorities that this would be done jointly, to give people the right to choose to go to the Ukrainian side or to go to Donetsk," Daria Morozova, a separatist official.

Despite earlier claims by Ukraine, the town of Vuhlehirsk, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Debaltseve, appeared Friday to be fully under the control of separatist forces. A three-story building on the main square was completely burned out, a gaping hole in its facade.

Associated Press journalists saw half a dozen destroyed armored vehicles in nearby areas, a testimony to the area's intense battles.

It took a leap of faith and some gritty manual labor to even get the evacuation convoys rolling in the heavy mist that enveloped the area Friday.

Rebel-organized buses had to stop along the road for several minutes after coming across concrete blocks placed there by Ukrainian forces to halt advancing tanks.

After the obstacles were towed out of place by a car belonging to monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier came from the opposite direction. A soldier quickly dismounted and nervously trained his rifle toward nearby fields.

More Ukrainian military trucks and armored vehicles were parked on the artillery-riddled outskirts of Debaltseve. A bulldozer bore an inscription "Putin is a piece of crap," sprayed with white paint.

Some residents appeared unaware that the evacuation was to take place until the buses arrived, saying they could not get family members to the collection point in time. Many looked exhausted.

Alexander Klimenko, deputy head of the Donetsk regional government loyal to Kiev, estimated that 3,000 people still remained in Debaltseve out of its previous 25,000 residents.

Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman, said about 1,000 civilians were expected to be evacuated Friday but Moroza later told the AP that only about 50 people left on the rebels' 20-odd buses.

One man, who gave his name only as Sergei, said he couldn't leave as he had nowhere to resettle with his friendly blond Labrador, Charlie.

At one municipal building, those intending to remain in Debaltseve despite the evacuation and the imminent possibility of renewed shelling collected plastic bags stuffed with rice, noodles, canned food, oil and other basic goods.

Arguments broke out at the food handout line. One woman complained that labels showed the canned food had expired several years ago.

Shortly after the bus convoys arrived, the Ukrainian army began firing outgoing artillery from positions near the center of town. Groups of Ukrainian military, separatists and international observers huddled to the side of the square where the food was being handed out, unfazed by the sound of shelling.

"So when are the Americans going to send us some tanks?" National Guard officer Ilya Kiva asked AP reporters.

To the west, artillery duels between rebels and government forces still rumbled through Donetsk, hitting several places including a cafe.

The evacuation unfolded ahead of talks in Moscow between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In Kiev on Thursday, Merkel and Hollande discussed ways to achieve peace in the separatist region with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Russia has acknowledged that some of its citizens are fighting among the rebels, but rejects Ukrainian and Western charges that it's backing the insurgency with troops and weapons. Yet NATO's top commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said Thursday that Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy, state-of-the-art weapons, air defenses and fighters.

More than 5,300 people have been killed since April, when the separatist insurgency flared in eastern Ukraine following Russia's annexation of Crimea.

With Merkel's first trip to Moscow since the conflict broke out, France and Germany were hoping they can come up with a peace deal acceptable both to Ukraine and Russia.

Some were skeptical that could be done.

Speaking in Debaltseve, Zorian Shkiryak, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said he had little confidence that a lasting settlement could be reached.

"For that to happen, Putin has to remove his army and soldiers and allow the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people to resolve matters on their own territory," he told The Associated Press. "But I have little hopes in this respect."

A disenchanted Donetsk retiree also dismissed the new European peace initiative.

"I don't expect anything. I'm so tired of this. It has been going on for so long," said Esfira Papunova.

Balint Szlanko in Donetsk, Ukraine contributed to this report.