KYIV (Reuters) – Intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces was taking place around two towns in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Bakhmut and Soledar, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday.
Fighting has been particularly intense this weekend in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which make up the larger industrial Donbas, and the strategically important Kherson province in the south. They constitute three of the four provinces Putin proclaimed as part of Russia last month, moves dismissed by Ukraine and its Western allies as illegitimate.
Bakhmut has been a target of Russia’s armed forces in their slow move through the region since taking the key industrial towns of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk in June and July. Soledar is located just north of Bakhmut.
“The key hot spots in Donbas are Soledar and Bakhmut,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. “Very heavy fighting is going on there.”
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Russian forces shelled Ukrainian positions on several fronts on Sunday, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said, with the targets including towns in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Kherson regions.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov suggested the heaviest fighting was occuring north of Bakhmut, asserting that Ukrainian forces had repelled Russian advances on the towns of Torske and Sprine in the past 24 hours.
“(The Russians) have decided to move through Torske and Sprine,” Zhdanov posted online. “Positions in those places are changing hands regularly. Our command is diverting reinforcements there, men and artillery to counter the Russian superiority in those areas.”
Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday its forces had repelled efforts by Ukrainian troops to advance in the Donetsk, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, inflicting what it described as significant losses.
Russia also said it was continuing air strikes on military and energy targets in Ukraine, using long-range precision-guided weapons.
Rybar, a pro-Russian military channel on Telegram, said Ukrainian armed forces again shelled Belgorod, a town in southern Russia that serves as a staging ground for Russian forces.
Anti-aircraft units intercepted most of the attacks, but there were two explosions near the airport. Three people were injured, it said.
Shelling by Ukrainian forces damaged the administration building in the city Donetsk, capital of the Donetsk region, the head of its Russian-backed administration said on Sunday.
“It was a direct hit, the building is seriously damaged. It is a miracle nobody was killed,” said Alexei Kulemzin, surveying the wreckage, adding that all city services were still working.
There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine to the attack on Donetsk city, which was annexed by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 along with swathes of the Donbas.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the battlefield reports.
Russia has opened a criminal investigation after gunmen shot dead 11 people and injured 15 at a military training ground near the Ukrainian border, authorities said on Sunday.
Russia’s RIA news agency, citing the defence ministry, said two gunmen opened fire with small arms during a firearms training exercise on Saturday, targeting personnel who had volunteered to fight in Ukraine. RIA said the gunmen, who it referred to as “terrorists,” were shot dead.
The incident in the southwestern Belgorod region was the latest blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. It came a week after a blast damaged a bridge linking mainland Russia to Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia’s defence ministry said the attackers were from a former Soviet republic, without elaborating. A senior Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Arestovych, said the two men were from the mainly Muslim Central Asian republic of Tajikistan and had opened fire on the others after an argument over religion.
Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the comments by Arestovych, a prominent commentator on the war, or independently verify casualty numbers and other details.
Two witnesses later told Reuters they had seen Russian air defence systems repelling air strikes in Belgorod.
A spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command said Russian forces were suffering severe shortages of equipment including ammunition as a result of the damage inflicted last weekend on the Crimea Bridge.
“Almost 75% (of Russian military supplies in southern Ukraine) came across that bridge,” Natalia Humeniuk told Ukrainian television, adding that strong winds had also now stopped ferries in the area.
“Now even the sea is on our side,” Humeniuk said.
Putin blamed Ukrainian security services for the bridge blast and last Monday, in retaliation, ordered the biggest aerial offensive against Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv, since the start of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by James Oliphant; editing by Lincoln Feast)
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