By Pavel Polityuk and Vladyslav Smilianets
kyiv/NEAR SOLEDAR, Ukraine, Jan 13 (Reuters) – Ukraine has declared its soldiers are resisting Russian forces in Soledar, as more than 500 civilians, including children, remained trapped in the eastern mining town.
In a speech broadcast by video, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday thanked two army units in Soledar who he said “are holding their positions and inflicting significant losses on the enemy.” He did not elaborate.
Zelensky said that he and the top Ukrainian command discussed the need for reinforcements in Soledar and nearby towns in the eastern industrial zone known as Donbas, as well as next steps for the next few days.
The Wagner mercenary group, led by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed to have taken Soledar after heavy fighting that it said left the town littered with Ukrainian dead.
Moscow, however, has refrained from officially claiming a victory, which would mark its first significant advance in the war in six months.
“At the moment there are still some small pockets of resistance in Soledar,” Andrei Bayevsky, a local pro-Russian politician, said in a webcast.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian state television that 559 civilians remained in Soledar, including 15 minors, unable to be evacuated from the community, which before the start of the war had a population of about 10,000.
Images obtained by Reuters of a medical evacuation from Soledar carried out by Ukrainian soldiers showed deserted streets with only a few dilapidated buildings left standing, amid blown trees and smoldering rubble.
Soledar lies less than 10 km northeast of the city of Bakhmut, where fighting has raged for months in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, nicknamed the “meat grinder”.
“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall into the hands of the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House. “And it’s certainly not going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down.”
Oleksandr Kovalenko, an analyst with the Ukrainian political-military group Information Resistance, said the battle for Soledar has eased pressure on Bakhmut’s most strategic city.
“Soledar has already fulfilled its main function – to extract a large amount of Russian resources and destroy them,” he told the nv.ua media website.
Kovalenko said the Soledar salt mines could prove lucrative for Russia if his forces manage to take the town.
He said Ukrainian forces control southwestern and central Soledar, but warned that “maintaining that control comes at the cost of human lives.”
ALLEGED WAR CRIMES
The Moscow-ordered invasion of Ukraine in February, the biggest war in Europe since World War II, has led to more than 50,000 complaints of alleged war crimes, according to Ukraine’s top war crimes prosecutor, Yuriy Belousov.
Allegations of alleged torture by Russian forces include electric shocks to the genitals and other parts of the body, beatings, various forms of suffocation, and sexual violence.
Moscow says it is carrying out what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine, saying its goal is to protect Russia’s security and denying it has committed war crimes or attacked civilians. Moscow, for its part, accuses Ukraine of war crimes, and the West of ignoring them.
The United Nations declared in November that it had found evidence that both sides had tortured prisoners of war.
Kremlin observers were watching the latest change in Russian leadership on the battlefield, a day after Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s army chief of staff, was unexpectedly given direct command of the invasion.
The previous commander, with three months seniority, General Sergei Surovikin, was effectively demoted to become one of Gerasimov’s three deputies.
Moscow explained the decision — at least the third abrupt change of commander in chief in the 11 months of conflict — as a response to the growing importance of the campaign.
Throughout Ukraine, the front lines have hardly moved since the last major Russian withdrawal in the south two months ago. kyiv hopes that the heavy weaponry of the Western allies will allow it to resume the advances.
Western countries have begun offering kyiv advanced weapons, such as the sophisticated US Patriot missile system. The United States, Germany and France last week promised armored fighting vehicles, while Ukraine’s latest requests have focused on main battle tanks.
Polish President Andrzej Duda promised Ukraine 14 German-made Leopard main battle tanks. Zelensky told Polish state broadcaster TVP Info that this could pave the way for other countries to do the same. The UK is considering sending tanks to the country.
Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, claiming that kyiv’s ties to the West threatened Russia’s security. Ukraine and its allies describe it as an unprovoked war to seize territories.
(Reuters reporting; writing by Cynthia Osterman and Michael Perry; editing by Grant McCool and Lincoln Feast & Simon Cameron-Moore; editing in Spanish by Darío Fernández)