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Russian forces pounded the city of Bakhmut, the months-old focal point of their attempts to capture the eastern Ukrainian industrial region of Donbas, and the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force said Ukrainian troops were pouring in ahead of an “inevitable” counter-offensive.

The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, in a report on Facebook, said fighting gripped Bakhmut and nearby areas.

It said Russian forces had failed to advance on two villages to the northwest.

At least a dozen localities came under Russian fire.

Separately, Serhiy Cherevatiy, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern group of forces, told national television on Wednesday that in the past 24 hours, Russian forces had attacked 324 times using artillery and multiple rocket launchers.

“The Russians are destroying buildings in Bakhmut to prevent our soldiers from using them as fortifications,” Cherevatiy said.

Cherevatiy on Tuesday said there had been a record number of attacks on a section of the front further north - near the city of Kupiansk, in northeastern Ukraine.

The governor of the southern Ukrainian region of Mykolaiv said Russian missiles had hit an apartment building and a private house in the city of the same name.

One person was killed and 15 were injured, Vitaliy Kim wrote on the Telegram messaging app. Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.

Top prize

But Bakhmut remains the prize sought for now by Russian troops.

They have tried for some nine months to push their way into the largely destroyed city in a conflict now extending into its 15th month and have secured some central districts.

Ukraine’s military has vowed to defend what was once a city of 70,000, though President Volodymyr Zelenskiy suggested this month they might pull out if in danger of encirclement.

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has spearheaded much of the advance into Bakhmut and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said this month that its forces controlled 80 percent of the city.

On Wednesday, Prigozhin said in a video message: “Today, well-trained enemy units are already being thrown into Bakhmut … A counter-offensive by the Ukrainians is inevitable.”

Russia says it has gained more ground in battle for Bakhmut

A critic of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin said his forces “will advance at any cost, just to grind down the Ukrainian army and disrupt their offensive.”

Ukraine’s military has made no comment on a new counter-offensive to build on advances undertaken last year to recapture Russian-occupied areas in the northeast and the south.

In Washington, the top US general in Europe said Ukraine’s military would get the weaponry it needed in time.

General Christopher Cavoli, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, cited as an example that more than 98 percent of the combat vehicles promised to Kyiv had already been delivered.

Military analyst Denys Popovych told Ukrainian NV Radio that there was no immediate prospect of turning things around in Bakhmut.

“If Bakhmut falls, Russia will have resources to send elsewhere,” Popoovych said. “Bakhmut offers an opportunity to destroy Russian troops and prevent them from being engaged elsewhere.”

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