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Ukrainian soldiers of the Paratroopers' of 80th brigade fire a mortar shell at a frontline position near Bakhmut, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on March 16.VIOLETA SANTOS MOURA/Reuters

Ukrainian forces were continuing on Friday to withstand Russian assaults on the ruined city of Bakhmut, the focal point for eight months of Russian attempts to advance through the industrial Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia.

Reuters reporters roughly 1.5 km (1 mile) from the front lines could hear the constant boom of artillery and the crackle of small arms fire on Thursday.

Ihor, a 36-year-old soldier at the mortar position, said Ukrainian forces had been targeted by air strikes, mortar fire and tank shelling.

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“You don’t always check on what’s flying over your head,” he added, crouching in a deep trench.

Bakhmut has become Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the city’s eastern part but have so far failed to encircle it.

British intelligence said on Friday some Russian combatants had crossed the river that bisects the town but that Ukrainian armed forces were still defending the western part.

Russian forces also conducted four air strikes on the frontline town of Avdiivka south of Bakhmut on Friday, Yermak, the Ukrainian presidential staff chief, wrote on Telegram.

“The city is being shelled almost around the clock,” he wrote, adding that there had been no casualties on Friday.

Reuters could not immediately verify those battlefield reports.

Russia denies targeting civilians but says it has hit infrastructure to degrade Ukraine’s military and remove what it says is a potential threat to its own security.

Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to grab territory from its pro-Western neighbour.