SMILE, Ukraine (AFP) - More than 100 besieged Ukrainian soldiers, surrounded for nearly a fortnight at their checkpoint near Lugansk, were allowed to retreat after an agreement with pro-Russian insurgents, a rebel leader said Tuesday.
"We gave them an ultimatum. It was an offer they couldn't refuse. They left with a part of their armoured vehicles, weapons and Ural trucks," Vitaliy Kiselyov, a deputy defence minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told AFP.
"We escorted them to another Ukrainian checkpoint," said Kiselyov, who said he was glad that the Ukrainian commander had decided to avoid further bloodshed.
Checkpoint No. 32 at Smile, about 15km west of Lugansk and manned by Ukraine's 80th paratrooper brigade, has been surrounded since Oct 15, according to the pro-Kiev governor of the region.
It was one of the hotspots of continued fighting after rebels signed a truce with Kiev on Sept 5.
Many feared it would be a bloodbath similar to Ilovaisk, a town in Donetsk region where 108 troops and many more volunteer Ukrainian fighters perished in a catastrophic defeat after becoming surrounded in August.
Ukrainian military had claimed the checkpoint was receiving adequate supplies, but on Tuesday military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that more than 10 servicemen had died at Smile since September. Two soldiers were killed Sunday during an attempt to deliver water to the men.
"We are currently identifying bodies and searching for missing soldiers," Lysenko said.
Kiselyov confirmed the approximate death toll. "Fighting at Smile caused about 10 deaths. I don't know exactly how many because many were burned completely in the armoured vehicles," he said.
"It would be useless to spill more blood in this fratricidal war," he said.
"We negotiated with the Ukrainians for two weeks. Finally we let them keep four armoured vehicles and three Ural trucks to transport the soldiers," said Kiselyov, adding that he escorted the Ukrainians to a checkpoint where they were met by an officer of their brigade.
"The fighting was particularly heavy in the first week. We followed a certain schedule to fire at each other from the morning to the afternoon and then negotiate until midnight," added the separatist leader, whose cap sports a hammer and sickle with a red star, and whose nom de guerre is "Communist".
"I respect the Ukrainian commander for taking this decision," he said. "He protected his men. They were completely surrounded."
Over seven weeks into the poorly-observed truce, the rebels were now moving in to checkpoint No. 32 as their own, while several kilometres away trucks carried giant concrete blocks and a crane was putting them on the ground fortifying the new front line.