About 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, many elderly and with disabilities, are clinging on to existence in horrific circumstances in Ukraine’s besieged city of Bakhmut and surrounding settlements, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warns.
The eastern city has become the centre of the biggest battle of the Russia-Ukraine war in recent months and a key target in Russia’s winter offensive to fully capture Ukraine’s industrialised Donbas region. The Russian offensive has so far yielded scant gains despite thousands of troops killed on both sides.
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“For the civilians that are stuck there, they are living in very dire conditions, spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the shelters,” the ICRC’s Umar Khan said at a news briefing on Friday, speaking by video link from Dnipro, a city 260km (160 miles) west of Bakhmut.
“All you see is people pushed to the very limits of their existence and survival and resilience,” he said.
Russian forces attacked northern and southern stretches of the front in the Donbas region on Friday, pressing on with their offensive despite assertions from Kyiv that Moscow’s assault was flagging near Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military reports described heavy fighting in the northern sector along a stretch of front running from Lyman to Kupiansk as well as in the south at Avdiivka on the outskirts of the Russian-held city of Donetsk.
At a Ukrainian artillery position in lush pine forests behind the northern stretch of the front, troops fired 155mm rounds from a French TRF-1 howitzer towards a highway used as a supply road for the Russian-held stronghold of Kreminna.
“Luckily, we are holding the same position because we are facing a very strong enemy with very good arms, and it’s a professional army – airborne troops,” a soldier using the call sign “Greenwich” told the Reuters news agency.
‘Shelling does not stop’
Front lines in Ukraine have barely budged since November despite intense fighting. Ukraine recaptured large swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, but has since kept mostly to the defensive while Russia has carried out assaults with hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited from prison as mercenaries.
As the winter turns to spring, the main question in Ukraine is how much longer Russia can sustain its major offensive and when or if Ukraine can reverse the momentum with a counterassault now being planned.
On Thursday, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces said Russia’s assault on Bakhmut appeared to be losing steam and Kyiv could go on the offensive “very soon”.
For now, Ukrainian forces are still focused on preventing the Russians from advancing along more than 300km (185 miles) of Donbas front from Kupiansk in the north to Vuhledar in the south.
“All day yesterday, the enemy tried to attack in the Avdiivka direction,” said Oleksiy Dmytrashkyvskyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s Tavria military command, which is responsible for southern operations.
“Shelling of Avdiivka does not stop – artillery, rockets, mortars,” he said. “It is sad to see how people survive there who do not want to leave. They are mostly elderly people.”
Serhiy Cherevatyi – spokesperson for the Operational Command East, responsible for the front line farther north – said Russia’s main focus lately had been on the stretch from Kupiansk to Lyman, territory recaptured by Ukrainian forces last year.
Both he and Dmytrashkyvskyi said the Russians were reinforcing their units after heavy losses.
There was no similar update on fighting in the area from the Russian side, which has long claimed to be inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainians.
In Bakhmut itself, Ukrainian troops who weeks ago had appeared likely to abandon the city have instead dug in, a strategy some Western military experts say is risky because of the need to conserve forces for a counterattack.
The United Nations issued its latest report on human rights abuses in the war, recording thousands of confirmed deaths of Ukrainian civilians, which it described as the tip of the iceberg, as well as disappearances, torture and rape, mostly of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas.
The report said the UN had documented about 40 summary executions of prisoners of war (POWs) over the course of the 13-month war.
“We are deeply concerned about the summary execution of up to 25 Russian prisoners of war and persons ordered to combat by Ukrainian armed forces, which we have documented,” Matilda Bogner, the head of the UN Human Rights Office mission in Ukraine, said at a Kyiv news conference.
Bogner laid out abuses allegedly committed by both sides but noted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was at the root of the violence against civilians and POWs. She said Ukrainian prosecutors were investigating some cases, but none had made it to court yet.
“In relation to the treatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war, we are also deeply concerned by the summary execution of 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war shortly after being captured by Russian armed forces,” Bogner said.
“The Wagner Group military and security contractors perpetrated 11 of these executions,” she said.
Russia denies carrying out atrocities in what it calls a “special military operation”.
In Kostiantynivka, west of Bakhmut, a Russian missile slammed into a refuge offering a warm shelter for civilians, killing at least three women, local officials said. Photographs released by emergency services showed a wrecked building. There was no immediate Russian response to the reports.
In the northern region of Sumy, an administrative building, a school building and residential buildings were among those damaged by Russian shelling that killed two civilians, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said.
Russia said its forces had destroyed a hangar housing Ukrainian drones in the Odesa region in the south.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, saying Ukraine’s ties to the West were a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.
Dmitry Medvedev, a hardline Kremlin official, said Moscow demanded a demilitarised zone around Ukrainian territory it claims to have annexed. Otherwise, he said, it would battle deep into Ukraine.
“Nothing can be ruled out here,” he said. “If you need to get to Kyiv, then you need to go to Kyiv. If you need to get to Lviv, then you need to go to Lviv in order to destroy this infection.”