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Bloody fighting and civilian evacuations as Russia claims to seize Soledar

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The Russian Defense Ministry claimed on Friday that its forces had taken control of Soledar, a small salt mining town in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, in what would be its first significant territorial gain after a series of retreats in recent months. But Ukrainian officials disputed that claim.

As the war continued with guns and words, Russian and Ukrainian officials described a gruesome scene with hundreds of civilians in peril.

Russian news agencies reported that forces from Moscow had evacuated 170 people to the city of Shakhtarsk, further into Russian-occupied territory.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s top regional official, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, said nearly 600 residents – out of a pre-war population of over 10,000 – remained in Soledar and tried to survive a ” bloodbath”.

The claims of Russian and Ukrainian officials could not be independently verified.

“On the evening of January 12, the liberation of the town of Soledar was completed, which is important for the continuation of successful offensive operations in the direction of Donetsk,” said the spokesman of the Russian Defense Ministry, Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov during a briefing.

But a spokesman for the Eastern Group of Ukrainian Armed Forces, Serhiy Cherevaty, said “fighting continues in Soledar”. Cherevaty said he could not say how many Ukrainian forces remained in Soledar, or in which parts of the city.

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The Russian mercenary group Wagner is waging a months-long campaign to try to seize Soledar and the nearby major town of Bakhmut, though military analysts question the strategic value. Some have suggested that Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who leads Wagner, is trying to score a public relations victory by showing that his forces are capable of seizing territory where regular Russian troops have failed.

“Wagner’s units have taken control of the entire territory of Soledar,” Prigozhin said in audio messages posted to his Telegram channel on Tuesday evening, along with photos of what appeared to be Prigozhin with Wagner fighters in the mines of Soledar salt.

Early Friday morning, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said the night battles had been “thriving”.

“The enemy…raised the high intensity of the attack. Our fighters are trying to defend themselves,” Malyar wrote on the Telegram messaging platform.

And in a statement late Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the fight was not over. “The hard battle for the Donetsk region continues, the battle for Bakhmut and Soledar, for Kreminna, for other towns and villages in the east of our country continues,” Zelensky said.

Soledar and Bakhmut have been at the center of a bloody and fierce artillery battle since late summer.

But even if Russia’s claims are confirmed, analysts said it would be a largely pyrrhic victory. The battle of Soledar and Bakhmut killed thousands of soldiers on each side. Many on the Russian side are ex-convicts who were offered freedom if they joined the fight. Both towns are mostly empty and largely destroyed.

“The Russians literally walked over the bodies of their own soldiers, burning everything in their path,” said Kyrylenko, the regional governor. He claimed that more than 100 Russian soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours.

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The fight for Soledar became particularly symbolic for Wagner and his leader Prigozhin.

In recent days, Prigozhin has repeatedly claimed that Wagner was entirely responsible for the capture of the city. His remarks reflected growing factionalism in the Russian military between groups such as Wagner and other paramilitary forces and the regular army.

Earlier in the week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a reshuffle of its war commanders that seemed partly designed to combat this factionalism. Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, who was supported by Prigozhin, was demoted in favor of General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Staff. The reshuffle now gives the highest-ranking Russian military officer direct operational control of the war.

Later Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement explicitly stating that the offensive against Soledar had been “successfully carried out by volunteers from the Wagner Assault Squads”.

David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine contributed to this report.

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