Ukraine beefs up eastern defenses as Russia sends waves of attacks
KYIV/KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukraine said it was strengthening its forces around Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region and repelling constant attacks there by Russian mercenary group Wagner, whose leader has vowed to capture the area's vast underground mines.
Kyiv had sent reinforcements to Soledar, a small town near Bakhmut where the situation was particularly difficult, Ukrainian officials said.
"The enemy again made a desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar from different directions and threw the most professional units of the Wagnerites into battle," Ukraine's military said in a statement.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar for months at the cost of many lives on both sides. He said on Saturday its significance lay in the network of mines there.
"It not only (has the ability to hold) a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 metres, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about."
Military analysts say the strategic military benefit for Moscow would be limited. A U.S. official has said Prigozhin, a powerful ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is eyeing the salt and gypsum from the mines.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in nightly video remarks on Sunday that Bakhmut and Soledar were holding on despite widespread destruction after months of attacks.
"Our soldiers are repelling constant Russian attempts to advance," he said. In Soledar "things are very difficult".
In an evacuee centre in nearby Kramatorsk, Olha, 60, said she had fled Soledar after moving from apartment to apartment as each was destroyed in tank battles.
"All of last week we couldn't come outside. Everyone was running around, soldiers with automatic weapons, screaming," said Olha, who gave only her first name.
"There isn't one house left intact," she said. "Apartments were burning, breaking in half."
Pro-Russian bloggers quoted Prigozhin as saying his forces were fighting for the administration building in Soledar.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a Ukrainian military spokesman for the eastern region, said the situation could be stabilised.
"There are brutal and bloody battles there - 106 shellings in one day," he said on Ukrainian television.
"Our troops in Soledar have been allocated additional forces and means for this purpose and everything is being done to improve the operational situation."
Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.
Further north in the Kharkiv region, a Russian missile strike on a marketplace in the village of Shevchenkove killing two women and wounding four others, including a 10-year-old girl, regional prosecutors said.
Badly injured people lay on the ground and rescue workers sifted through piles of rubble, overturned and burning stalls, and a large crater in video footage from police and Ukraine's presidential office. A police officer carried a girl with blood on her face from the scene.
The perpetrators were "common terrorists" Andriy Yermak, chief of the Ukrainian president's staff, wrote on Telegram. Russia did not immediately comment on the reports from the village, which Kyiv retook from Moscow in September.
Zelenskiy made a fresh denunciation of what he called Russia's failure to observe a ceasefire it had declared for Russian Orthodox Christmas on Friday and Saturday.
Ukraine never agreed to the ceasefire, which it called a Russian excuse to reinforce troops. Both sides accused the other of continuing hostilities throughout the period.
"Russians were shelling Kherson with incendiary ammunition immediately after Christmas," he said, referring to the southern city abandoned by Russian forces in November.
"Strikes on Kramatorsk and other cities in Donbas - on civilian targets and at the very time when Moscow was reporting a supposed 'silence' for its army."
On Sunday, Russia said a missile strike on Kramatorsk had killed 600 Ukrainian soldiers, but a Reuters reporter at the scene found no visible signs of casualties.
A Reuters team visited two college dormitories that Moscow said had been temporarily housing Ukrainian personnel and which it had targeted as revenge for a New Year's attack that killed scores of Russian soldiers and caused outcry in Russia.
Neither dormitory appeared to have been directly hit or seriously damaged. There were no obvious signs that soldiers had been living there and no sign of bodies or traces of blood.
The Kremlin said it was confident its defence ministry was correct when it said that 600 Ukrainian servicemen had been "destroyed" in the attack. Ukrainian military spokesperson Cherevatyi dismissed it as an "an information operation".
As Moscow's invasion of Ukraine grinds towards the one-year mark, Russia's military is under domestic pressure to deliver battlefield successes.
Hawkish voices have sought an escalation of the war effort after setbacks such as loss of captured territory and high rates of death and injury. Some pro-Kremlin military bloggers criticised the Russian defence ministry claims.
"Let's talk about 'fraud'," wrote one prominent pro-war military blogger on the Telegram messaging app, who posts under the name of Military Informant and who has more than half a million subscribers.
"It is not clear to us who, and for what reason, decided that 600 Ukrainian soldiers died inside, all at once, if the building was not actually hit (even the light remained on).
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, and Clarence Fernandez and Peter Graff)