Ukrainian soldiers are defending the eastern industrial town of Bakhmut as Moscow-backed separatist forces in the war-battered Donetsk region advance after recapturing a series of villages nearby.
Bakhmut — a wine-producing and salt-mining town, on the main road from Donetsk to the capital Kyiv, once home to 70,000 people — would be a major prize if Russia has any hope of securing the region after invading Ukraine in February.
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Intense shelling was audible from the direction of Otradovka, Veselaya Dolina, and Zaitsevo, which are now apparently in the hands of forces loyal to the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic now annexed by Russia.
A Ukrainian artillery commander named Serhiy told Al Jazeera Ukrainian soldiers were in Bakhmut because “it is a key point”.
“Our task is the destruction of places where there is a concentration of manpower and batteries of firing positions,” he said.
The sound of explosions echoed through the empty streets of Bakhmut as Ukrainian forces went on patrol.
Another Ukrainian soldier called Nikolai said the Russians were “throwing all their forces at the town”.
“Artillery, air power, even helicopters are attacking our positions,” said Nikolai. “They try to approach during night and day. And it’s their elite units and mercenaries. There are no regular Russians soldiers left.”
‘Deadly game of hide and seek’
Ukraine’s military in recent weeks has pushed back against Russian forces across the front lines in the south and the east, including in parts of Donetsk. Western weaponry has helped the Ukrainian army win back more territory in the past month than Russian forces have taken in five months.
The defence of Bakhmut, however, remains one Ukraine’s biggest challenges on the eastern front line.
Reporting from Bakhmut, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford described the situation as a “deadly game of hide and seek” with both sides launching attacks.
Pointing to a mobilised cannon targeting Russian supply and artillery positions as far as 30km (12 miles) beyond Bakhmut, Stratford said, “It takes around 40 seconds for the shell to reach its target. The trajectory is adjusted after information from drones and spotters monitoring the target zone is received.”
Russian shelling has continued over Bakhmut for weeks, forcing most people to flee.
“The shelling never stops,” said a local woman in the town. “I stay here to look after my mother. She is old and frail. Things have gotten a lot worse.”
‘How can we leave?’
Bakhmut residents who remain behind are attempting to stockpile meagre supplies of food and water before the battle ahead.
Igor Maksymenko’s water barrel sprang a leak as it tumbled from his wire trolley but he managed to right it, determined to bring it to an apartment block still housing 25 people.
“Sometimes they [Russian-backed forces] fire really close, next to that store, just above our heads, and shrapnel mixed with dirt sprays everywhere,” he said. “But still we keep on lugging it. How can we leave? To where?”
Ukraine has made lightning-quick territorial gains in the east and south. On September 30, Ukrainian forces advancing from the captured town of Izyum surrounded the strategic town of Lyman in the eastern Donetsk region and seized it the following day after Russian personnel retreated.
The advance of Ukrainian troops has undermined a claim from the Kremlin last week that it officially annexed Donetsk, neighbouring Luhansk, and the southern regions of Zaporizhia and Kherson.
The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014, and together are about 20 percent of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilisation of Russian army reservists last month to reinforce manpower on the front lines in Ukraine.
Under increasing pressure from his own supporters and others, Putin continued reshuffling his military’s leadership. The state-run TASS news agency reported a new commander was put in place in Russia’s eastern military district.