A Ukrainian soldier on the frontline outside Soledar (Picture: Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo).

Fate of Ukrainian town Soledar hangs in the balance amid brutal battle

A Ukrainian soldier on the frontline outside Soledar (Picture: Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo).

The fate of Soledar in eastern Ukraine hangs in the balance amid one of the fiercest battles of Russia's invasion.

Russian forces have used jets, mortars and rockets to bombard the devastated salt-mining town in an unrelenting assault.

Ukraine's unflagging resistance and other challenges have prompted Moscow to shake up its military leadership again.

Fighting rages on 

Soledar, a Ukrainian town just 10 kilometres north of Bakhmut in Donetsk, has seen intense fighting in recent days.

A Ukrainian officer near the town told The Associated Press the pattern is that the Russians firstly send one or two waves of soldiers, many from the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, who take heavy casualties as they probe the Ukrainian defences.

Once Ukrainian troops have taken casualties and are exhausted, the Russians then send a fresh wave of highly-trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces, the officer, who insisted on anonymity, said.

Ukrainian officials denied Russian claims that Soledar had fallen but the Wagner Group's owner repeated the assertion of a breakthrough late on Wednesday.

However, the owner of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin wrote on his Russian social media platform: "Once again I want to confirm the complete liberation and cleansing of the territory of Soledar from units of the Ukrainian army.

"Civilians were withdrawn. Ukrainian units that did not want to surrender were destroyed."

Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of Soledar

He claimed about 500 people were killed and that "the whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers".

Ukraine's military said late on Wednesday Russian forces had suffered "huge losses" in the Soledar fighting. The AP was unable independently to verify either side’s claims.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stopped short of declaring the town's capture, telling reporters Russian forces had achieved "positive dynamics in advancing" in Soledar.

"Let’s not rush, and wait for official statements," he added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky weighed in Wednesday in his nightly video address: "Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar – a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers – is allegedly some kind of Russia’s achievement."

He said Ukrainian forces in the area are holding out against the Russians.

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Why does Soledar matter?

The Soledar axis is "highly likely" an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north and disrupt Russia's lines of communication, according to UK defence intelligence.

Defence and security expert Glen Grant told Forces News: "If Bakhmut and Soledar get cut off, then Russia will have a breakthrough gap that they can then head west into the Donetsk region and take more ground, which is what they're trying to do."

The Russians and Wagner group are thought to be attracted to Soledar because of its 200km-long disused salt mines.

Some of the fighting has focused on their entrances, which run underneath the district.

The MOD says that both sides are likely worried the tunnels could be used for infiltration behind their lines.

There is also a financial incentive to taking control of the mines.

Mr Grant explained: "The salt mines were giving something like close to 20% of the Russian salt so that is, actually, in economic terms, quite a lot.

"So those salt mines, once captured, represent money and this is one of the big things that people are saying that the Wagner Group have been concentrating on Bakhmut purely to capture the salt mines and there are other mines down there as well, there are other minerals."

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