A Ukrainian serviceman walks through a trench in a front line region of Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region
Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Russia vowed Tuesday to capture the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the epicentre of fierce fighting for months, as a precursor for offensives deeper into eastern Ukraine.
The intense fighting in the east comes as Ukraine said it had identified a soldier filmed being shot dead in a video that sparked outrage on social media and as UN chief Antonio Guterres headed to Ukraine for talks in Kyiv.
The battle for the salt-mining town, which had a pre-war population of 80,000 people, has been the longest and bloodiest in Moscow’s more than year-long invasion that has devasted swathes of Ukraine and displaced millions.
Ukraine vowed Monday to bolster its defences in Bakhmut, but a Ukrainian soldier near the town also told AFP that forces were bracing for its fall to the Russians and that some units had begun to retreat.
“Capturing (Bakhmut) will allow for further offensive operations deep into the defence lines of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told military officials during a televised meeting on Tuesday.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the army was intent on defending Bakhmut despite a rumoured retreat under pressure from Russian forces, who have sought to capture Bakhmut for months.
“I told the chief of staff to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut,” Zelensky said in his evening address to the nation late Monday.
- ‘Bakhmut will fall’ -
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak told AFP there was “consensus” within the military on the need to “continue defending the city.”
Ukraine: intense fighting at Bakhmut
Both sides have said the Bakhmut battle has cost a significant number of troops, but neither gave figures.
Russia’s mercenary group Wagner has spearheaded the attack on Bakhmut. Outside the town, a Ukrainian soldier told AFP that Kyiv was losing control.
“Bakhmut will fall,” one exhausted soldier said Monday in the town of Chasiv Yar, 10 kilometres (six miles) west of the front line.
Some units had started to retreat in “ small groups”, he said.
A US-based institute said over the weekend that Ukrainian forces “are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal from Bakhmut.”
Ukrainian officials say around 4,000 civilians remain in the town, which has been virtually flattened.
- Belarus detains sabotage group -
“Approximately 38 children, as far as we know, remain in Bakhmut,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told regional media on Tuesday.
In Moscow-allied Belarus, long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko accused Ukrainian secret services of a plot in which he said more than 20 people had been detained in connection with an attack on a Russian military plane.
Regime opponents said last month that partisans had damaged a Russian plane at an airstrip near the capital Minsk.
Both Russia and Ukraine have said fighting in Bakhmut has come at a huge cost for their forces
“More than 20 accomplices who are in Belarus have been detained. The rest are hiding,” said Lukashenko, identifying the main culprit as a joint Russian and Ukrainian citizen.
He confirmed that the A-50 plane had been targeted but claimed it “did not suffer any significant damage.”
In power since 1994, Lukashenko allowed his Russian ally Vladimir Putin to use Belarusian territory as a launchpad for his Ukraine invasion a year ago.
Ukraine also said Tuesday that it had identified a soldier filmed being shot dead in a video widely shared on social media that sparked outrage.
- Killing video goes viral -
The footage shows what appears to be a detained Ukrainian combatant standing in a shallow trench, smoking, and being shot after saying “Glory to Ukraine”.
A man walks outside a destroyed school after a missile strike in Kramatorsk in Ukraine's Donbas region
The phrase spoken by the alleged Ukrainian soldier has trended on social media. Senior officials in Kyiv blamed Russian forces and called for justice.
“According to preliminary data, the deceased is a serviceman of the 30th separate mechanised brigade – Tymofiy Mykolayovych Shadura,” the Ukrainian military said.
The soldier had been missing since February 3.
AFP could not independently verify where or when the footage was filmed or whether it showed – as Ukrainian officials and social media users suggested – a Ukrainian prisoner of war.
On Monday, Zelensky said the video showed Russian forces “brutally killing” a Ukrainian serviceman. “We will find the murderers,” he vowed.
Guterres, the UN secretary-general, was travelling to Ukraine to meet Zelensky in his third trip since Russia’s invasion, a UN spokesman said.