Ukraine says its forces hold out after 'hot' night in Soledar

By Pavel Polityuk and Vladyslav Smilianets

KYIV/NEAR SOLEDAR, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukraine said on Friday its forces were still holding out in the eastern salt mining town of Soledar after a "hot" night of fighting in what has become one of the bloodiest battlefields of the entire war.

Both sides have endured heavy losses in the battle for the small town. Moscow is seeking what would be its first big battlefield gain after half a year of humiliating retreats. Kyiv says Russia is throwing wave upon wave of soldiers into a pointless fight for a bombed-out wasteland.

The Wagner ultra-nationalist mercenary company run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin has claimed to have taken the town. But Russia's defence ministry has so far said little about the situation there, while a Russian-installed local official said on Thursday there were still pockets of resistance.

"The night in Soledar was hot, battles continued," Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

"The enemy threw almost all the main forces in the direction of Donetsk and maintains a high intensity of offensive. Our fighters are bravely trying to maintain the defence," she said, referring to the Donetsk region which includes Soledar.

"This is a difficult phase of the war, but we will win. There is no doubt."

Outside Soledar, Ukrainian soldiers were dug into well-fortified trenches in the wintry woods. Explosions echoed in the distance.

A 24-year-old soldier using the call-sign BUK, told Reuters the intensity of shelling had risen by around 70 percent, but forces were still holding their positions.

"The situation is difficult but stable. We're holding back the enemy ... we're fighting back."

Reuters could not verify the situation inside the town, which had around 10,000 residents before the war. Ukrainian officials say more than 500 civilians are trapped inside, including 15 children.

In an overnight video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked two units in Soledar he said were "holding their positions and inflicting significant losses on the enemy." He did not give more details.

DUG IN

The front lines in Ukraine have barely budged for two months since Russia's last big retreat in the south. Ukraine is re-arming for a planned push to drive Russian forces out of more territory, while Russia is reinforcing to keep seized land.

Meanwhile, the battles for Soledar and the bigger nearby city of Bakhmut have become what both sides call a "meat grinder" - a brutal war of attrition claiming the lives of thousands of soldiers they both need for decisive battles ahead.

U.S. officials said a Russian victory in Soledar, or even in nearby Bakhmut, a city ten times the size where the Russians have so far been repelled, would mean little for the overall trajectory of the war.

"Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it's not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself," U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House, "and it certainly isn't going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down."

Oleksandr Kovalenko, an analyst at Ukraine's Information Resistance Military-political group, said the fighting for Soledar had eased pressure on Bakhmut.

"Soledar has already fulfilled its main role -- drawing off a large amount of Russian resources and destroying them," he said on the nv.ua media website.

The new year has brought important pledges of extra Western weapons for Ukraine, which is seeking armour to mount mechanised battles against Russian tanks. Last week, France, Germany and the United States pledged to send armoured fighting vehicles.

In recent days, the focus has been on main battle tanks, which Western countries have yet to provide. Poland has promised to send German-made Leopard tanks as part of a Western coalition. That requires the permission of Berlin, which has so far been hesitant but has lately signalled a willingness to allow it as part of a coordinated aid plan.

Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, saying Kyiv's ties with the West threatened Russia's security. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war to seize territory.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)