Russian force claims control of Soledar as east Ukraine battle hots up

Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed to have taken control of the salt-mining Ukrainian town- a stepping stone in Moscow's push to capture the Donbas region

Tom Balmforthand Vladyslav SmilianetsReuters
Published : 11 Jan 2023, 04:27 AM
Updated : 11 Jan 2023, 04:27 AM

Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed to have taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine - a stepping stone in Moscow's push to capture the entire Donbas region - but fighting appeared to be continuing.

The contract militia said on Tuesday night that fighting was still going on in the town centre and the Kyiv government said its troops were still holding out.

  • Soledar, salt mines have symbolic, military and commercial value

  • Ukraine says troops still holding onto positions

From the outskirts, plumes of smoke could be seen rising over the town and the incoming artillery fires was relentless.

A Reuters photographer saw many residents fleeing along roads out of the town in perishing cold.

With the war now in its 11th month, Russian commanders have targeted Soledar as a platform to attack the nearby city of Bakhmut, which has held out for months against a Russian onslaught.

A victory in Soledar would have symbolic, military and commercial value for Russia after a series of battlefield setbacks in recent months, but its fate was not entirely clear on Wednesday morning.

Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said late on Tuesday: "Wagner units took control of the entire territory of Soledar. A cauldron has been formed in the centre of the city in which urban fighting is going on."

A photograph posted on Wagner's Telegram channel appeared to show Prigozhin and his mercenaries inside a salt mine in Soledar.

'FIERCE FIGHTING'

His comment that fighting continued in the centre indicated that Russian control was incomplete despite his statement that all of the town was in Wagner's hands.

The Kyiv government said earlier its forces were holding out. The Ukrainian military's morning summary made one mention of Soledar, listing it as one of several towns being shelled in the Donetsk region of the Donbas. Reuters was unable to verify conditions on the ground.

The Russian state news agency RIA said Wagner had taken over Soledar's salt mines following "fierce fighting".

The entrance to the mines is located on the outskirts of Soledar. Washington has said Prigozhin may want personal control of the area's mines.

The Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne on Wednesday morning quoted Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine's eastern forces, as denying that Soledar was under Russian control. "Wait for the details from the General Staff," he was quoted as saying.

A Reuters photographer said their team had tried to enter Soledar in recent days but been unable to do so.

Along the road from Soledar to Bakhmut, ambulances were waiting ready to deal with the wounded, and the scene in field hospitals was chaotic.

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar had said on Tuesday evening that fighting for the town was still raging and the Russians were taking heavy losses.

"The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters. Our fighters are bravely holding the defence," she said.

RUSSIA SEEKS MAJOR WIN

Soledar would be Russia's most substantial gain since August after a series of retreats throughout much of the second half of 2022.

Denis Pushilin, leader of the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine's Donetsk province, said the capture of Soledar would open up the prospect of seizing much more significant towns further west in what Russia has recognised as the Donetsk People's Republic, one of four provinces it declared annexed three months ago.

"The opportunity to liberate Artyomovsk [Bakhmut] and Siversk is now multiplied. This is the long-awaited entry to the bridgehead of Kramatorsk, Sloviansk. And this is actually a turning point, now preparations are under way for the moment we have been waiting for - the liberation of the Donetsk People's Republic."

Troops from both sides have taken heavy losses in some of the most intense combat since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

The Kyiv government has released pictures in recent days showing what it says are scores of dead Russian soldiers strewn over muddy fields.

Russia began what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine on Feb. 24, saying that Ukraine's close ties with the West and ambitions to join NATO posed a security threat. Kyiv and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to seize territory from Ukraine.

A US official said Ukrainian troops were due to arrive in the United States soon to begin training on Patriot air defence missiles. Russia's ambassador to Washington said the move showed Washington's "de facto participation" in the conflict.

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