Russia says its forces have seized control of the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar after weeks of intense battles but Kyiv said its troops were still fighting in the town.
The Russian defence ministry claimed on Friday that its forces had wrested control of the salt-mining town, where buildings have been reduced to rubble since it became the focus of a relentless Russian assault.
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“The capture of Soledar was made possible by the constant bombardment of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile forces and artillery of a grouping of Russian forces,” it said.
Control of the town would allow Russia to cut off Ukraine’s “supply lines” in the nearby, strategically important city of Bakhmut and then “block and encircle the Ukrainian units there”, said the ministry.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a late-night video address on Friday that Kyiv’s forces continued to fight Russian troops in the city.
Earlier, military spokesman Sergiy Cherevaty said Ukrainian forces had the situation “under control in difficult conditions”.
If Soledar has fallen, it would mark a rare military success for the Kremlin after a series of battlefield setbacks and humiliating retreats.
Ukrainian soldiers earlier told Al Jazeera they expected Soledar to “imminently fall”.
“They said there were very few Ukrainian soldiers left in Soledar and there were plans for getting the remainder of those out,” Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford said, reporting from the outskirts of Bakhmut.
The loss of Soledar would put “huge pressure” on Bakhmut, 10km (6.2 miles) south of the town, said Stratford.
“The scenes inside the city [of Bakhmut] are truly incredible, there is hardly a single building, certainly in the centre, that isn’t partially or completely destroyed,” he said.
“The streets are virtually deserted, there are very, very few civilians and, interestingly, very few military. There was a lot of heavy shelling.
“After two hours or so [inside the city], we were given the alert to move by the Ukrainian special forces because according to their intelligence, about 600 Russian soldiers could be seen entering the northeast of Bakhmut and taking up new positions.”
Heavy losses sustained by both sides
For days, Kyiv has said its soldiers were holding out in Soledar, in what has become one of the bloodiest battlefields of the entire war.
“This is a difficult phase of the war, but we will win. There is no doubt,” Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar wrote earlier on the Telegram messaging app.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem, reporting from Moscow, said: “Soledar, according to the Russians, has fallen to their hands, and this is going to be a big push for them to try to take Bakhmut.”
Battles have been ongoing “since the truce that was announced by the Russians on the day of Orthodox Christmas”, he said.
With a new Russian general to lead the war effort in Ukraine and “what Russians call the liberation of Soledar … This means, in the coming days, Russia will be on the assault”, said Hashem.
Russia’s announcement came after the Wagner Group – a Russian mercenary military force heavily involved in the war in Ukraine – said its fighters had seized Soledar.
“The Wagner Group said they were in full control of the town. They even published videos purportedly showing their fighters walking through the town,” said Hashem.
Hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian troops are understood to have been killed in Soledar, which is in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region – one of four partly occupied regions in Ukraine’s east and south which Moscow moved to unilaterally annex in September.
The town had a pre-war population of about 10,000 people and sits above cavernous salt mines.
US plays down Soledar capture
Overall, the front lines have barely budged in the two months since Russia’s last big retreat in the south.
Ukraine is rearming for a planned push to drive Russian forces out of more territory, while Moscow is reinforcing its ranks in a bid to keep control of land it has already seized.
The United States – Kyiv’s foremost ally – has said a Russian victory in Soledar or even Bakhmut, a city 10 times larger where the Russians have so far been repelled, would mean little for the overall trajectory of the war.
“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself, and it certainly isn’t going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the US National Security Council, told reporters at the White House on Thursday.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank in Washington, DC also said the town’s fall would not be “an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut”.
Russia has “over-exaggerated the importance of Soledar”, the ISW said, adding that the long and difficult battle for the town has exhausted Moscow’s forces.