DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (Reuters) - Convoys of buses carrying many local residents to safety left the besieged town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine on Friday as government forces kept up artillery fire to defend their positions against pro-Russian separatists.
The two convoys of empty buses, one of around 20 vehicles coming from territory controlled by the Ukrainian army and another of more than 30 from the rebel-held city of Donetsk converged in Debaltseve town center's narrow streets and a small square near the district administration building.
Hundreds of civilians were waiting, on a frosty day, to board and leave the town either to Ukrainian or rebel-held territory.
Between 500 and 700 people said they would be leaving today," said Oleksandr Klymenko, a Ukrainian government official. "For those leaving to (government-controlled) Slaviansk we have rail cars ready with blankets and heating and they will be (later) distributed elsewhere to Ukraine."
An estimated 3,000 people still remained in the town which had a population of around 25,000 before the conflict, he said.
Both convoys, which were accompanied by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors, left Debaltseve at around the same time, though the one returning to rebel-controlled Donetsk, about 60 km (37 miles) away, took only 60 people. Most buses returned empty.
But even as the evacuation progressed, Ukrainian defenders kept up regular howitzer and mortar fire at separatists beyond the town's perimeter from a position about 200 meters (yards) from the town center.
In Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, a rebel commander, accused Ukrainian authorities of failing to inform the people about the possibility of the evacuation to the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
"Also when we entered Debaltseve their (Ukrainian) artillery was firing from inside the town," he told reporters.
Government forces have held on to Debaltseve, a strategic rail hub linking the two separatist-held regions of eastern Ukraine, despite rebel artillery attacks that badly damaged the town.
"The last two weeks were hell. We will go to Ukrainian territory, we have relatives there," said Artem Nikishin, a 31-year-old, as he boarded a bus to the government-controlled town of Slaviansk with his wife and two sons. "This is our property now," he said, pointing to several bags and a wrap made of a blanket.
Regional police chief in Debaltseve Vyacheslav Abroskin said on Facebook that one person had been killed in rebel artillery shelling of the town on Friday morning.
In the center of Debaltseve, dozens of Ukrainian troops in full battle gear, mingled with civilians waiting either to receive humanitarian aid or board the buses.
A soldier who only used his nickname of "the student" said they were determined to hold Debaltseve.
"We will win this battle, we do not need American weapons... what we need is our fighting spirit, as long as we have it we will defeat these Russian servants in Donetsk and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin himself."
Another soldier who said his name was Ruslan, a man in his late 50s, said he had volunteered to fight for the future of the country. "There's no need for young people to die here. We old dogs can defeat these Russian cowards alone. We can give them a good bite," Ruslan said waving his fist at Russian liaison officers accompanying one of the convoys.
Most of those fleeing Debaltseve were headed for government-held territory, but Svetlana, 45, was getting on a bus to the rebel-held town of Yenakieve, 22 km (14 miles) away.
"After two weeks in a cellar, thinking and rethinking whether to leave the house or not, we've decided to leave. The kids don't have to experience this any more," said Svetlana, who declined to give her last name.
Writing by Richard Balmforth and Gabriela Baczynska