Ukraine said hundreds of civilians remained trapped in Soledar as bloody battles continued for control of the largely destroyed salt mining town in eastern Ukraine.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian state television that there were still 559 civilians in Soledar, including 15 children, who could not be evacuated.
Ukraine said on Thursday its army was “holding its ground” as fighting in Soledar continued, refuting claims by the Russian mercenary group Wagner that its troops had taken control of the town.
“The fighting in the direction of Soledar is fierce. [The Russians] are moving their own bodies,” said Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hannah Malial.
“Russia is driving its own people to massacres by the thousands, but we persevere.”
Yevgeny Prigozin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary gang, said on Wednesday that his troops had taken Soledar after heavy fighting and that the town was “full of Ukrainian soldiers”.
But the Kremlin has so far refused to declare victory in Soledad.
Asked about Prigozhin’s victory statement, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “Let’s not rush, let’s wait for the official statement. There are positive developments in progress. “
Capturing Soledar would mark Moscow’s first major advance in half a year.
In its daily military briefing on Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry made no mention of the developments surrounding Soledar.
Russian forces have recently focused their efforts on capturing Soledar as part of their ambitions to capture the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut and Ukraine’s larger eastern Donbas region, leading to intense fighting in sub-zero temperatures over the past five days.
Drone footage released by Ukraine this week showed some damage to Soledad after months of fighting, with bomb craters scarring the ground.
Before and after photos give a sense of destruction:
Elsewhere, Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksii Hromov said Russia was preparing a new offensive aimed at seizing eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.
“It is expected that in the near future the enemy will attempt to enter the administrative borders of the Donetsk region and may intensify operations to seize the left bank part of the Zaporizhia region,” Khromov said.
Ukraine has warned for weeks that Russia is preparing a massive offensive, claiming Moscow will order the mobilization of as many as 500,000 new soldiers in January.
Also on Thursday, a Russian delegation led by Russian Ground Forces Commander Oleg Salyukov visited Belarus to review the combat readiness of coalition forces stationed there.
Russia and Belarus recently expanded joint military training exercises in Belarus amid growing concerns that Moscow is pressuring its closest ally to enter the war.
“The situation in Belarus … does not pose an immediate threat,” Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Sergey Nayev said on Thursday.
The visit came a day after a major reshuffle in Moscow’s military leadership, in which Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov was named the country’s commander-in-chief in the Ukraine war.