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Ukrainian servicemen return from heavy fighting amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, close to Bakhmut, Ukraine, April 15, 2023.KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters

Ukrainian and Russian armed forces are fighting extraordinarily bloody battles in the smashed eastern city of Bakhmut, but pro-Kyiv forces are still holding on, Ukraine’s military said on Saturday.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said earlier in the day that fighters from the Wagner mercenary group had captured two more areas of Bakhmut, the main target of Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Wagner has spearheaded Russia’s attempt to take Bakhmut since last summer in what has been the longest and deadliest battle of the war for both sides.

“Bloody battles unprecedented in recent decades are taking place in the middle of the city’s urban area,” said Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command.

“Our soldiers are doing everything in bloody and fierce battles to grind down (the enemy’s) combat capability and break its morale. Every day, in every corner of this city, they are successfully doing so,” he told the 1+1 television channel.

The Russian Defence Ministry said Wagner units had taken two areas on the northern and southern outskirts of the city. Russian army paratroop units were supporting the claimed advance by holding back Ukrainian forces on the flanks, it added.

Reuters could not independently confirm the report.

Britain said in an intelligence update on Friday that Ukrainian troops had been forced to cede some territory in Bakhmut as Russia mounted a renewed assault there, with intense artillery fire over the previous two days.

Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of around 70,000 people, has been Russia’s main target in a winter offensive that has so far yielded scant gains despite infantry ground combat of an intensity unseen in Europe since World War Two.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made no mention of Bakhmut in his daily video address on Saturday and reiterated Kyiv’s desire to join NATO as soon as possible. Ukraine would need effective security guarantees before that happened, he said, but gave no details.

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