Russia says its forces are edging closer to capturing Soledar, a salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine, which would mark an elusive victory for the Kremlin but comes at the cost of heavy Russian casualties and extensive destruction of the territory they claim.
More than 100 Russian troops were killed in the battle for Soledar during the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in televised remarks.
“The Russians have literally marched on the bodies of their own soldiers, burning everything on their way,” Kyrylenko said, while reporting that Russian forces had shelled a dozen towns and villages in the region in the past day.
Russian forces are using mortars and rockets to bombard Soledar in an unrelenting assault, struggling for a breakthrough after military setbacks have turned what the Kremlin hoped would be a fast victory into a grinding war of attrition that has dragged on for nearly 11 months with no end in sight.
“Civilians are trying to survive amid that bloodbath as the Russians are pressing their attacks,” Kyrylenko said.
Soledar’s fall would be a prize for a Kremlin starved of good battlefield news in recent months after losing the significant city of Kherson in December.
It would also offer Russian troops a springboard to conquer other areas of the eastern Donetsk province that remain under Ukrainian control, particularly the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut.
The road to Bakhmut
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from near Bakhmut, said there was “a lot of heavy shelling all around this area”.
Earlier, Ukrainian soldiers told Al Jazeera that Russian troops were in the centre of Soledar and in control of its salt mine.
“They described Russian tanks in the centre of Soledar as well, and said there are concerns among the Ukrainian forces about possible escape routes for the Ukrainian troops inside Soledar,” Stratford said.
The troops were trying to “protect a western route out of the town”, he said.
The Russians’ tactic in the assault on Soledar has been to send one or two waves of soldiers, many from the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group who take heavy casualties as they probe the Ukrainian defences, a Ukrainian officer near Soledar told The Associated Press.
When Ukrainian troops suffer casualties and are exhausted, the Russians send in another wave of highly trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces to get a new toehold on the battlefield, said the Ukrainian officer, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the “selfless and courageous action” of Russian troops, which he said is helping them to press forward in Soledar.
“Gigantic work has been done in Soledar,” he said.
Peskov, however, stopped short of confirming a claim by Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, who boasted about capturing Soledar on Wednesday.
“There is still a lot to be done and it’s too early to stop and rub our hands, the main work is still ahead,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said at a briefing Thursday, “The enemy continues the assaults, but suffers significant losses and is not successful.”
It was not possible to verify the claims made by either side.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence made no mention of Soledar in its daily briefing on Thursday.
The ministry announced Wednesday that the country’s top military officer – the chief of the military’s general staff, General Valery Gerasimov – was put in charge of the military operation in Ukraine.
He replaced General Sergei Surovikin, who was demoted to deputy only three months after he was installed in the top job.
Ukrainian officials also said they were taking note of personnel changes at the top levels of the Russian military command, describing them as a sign that Moscow is not achieving what it had hoped.
“Personnel changes would not occur with such frequency if they were doing well,” a senior Ukrainian military official, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, said.
Fighting continued elsewhere in Ukraine.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, reported Thursday that two civilians were killed and a further eight were wounded in Russian attacks on Wednesday.
Citing data from regional officials, Tymoshenko said that one civilian died and five were wounded in the southern Kherson province, where shells hit a maternity hospital, private houses and apartment buildings, while one person was killed in Donetsk.
Two people were wounded in the southeastern Zaporizhia province, with one further civilian sustaining injuries in the southeastern Dnipropetrovsk province.