Near Kreminna: Russian forces attacked northern and southern stretches of the front in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region on Friday, pressing on with their offensive despite assertions from Kyiv that Moscow's assault was flagging near the city of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military reports described heavy fighting in the northern sector along a stretch of front running from Lyman to Kupiansk, as well as in the south at Avdiivka on the outskirts of the Russian-held city of Donetsk.
Both are parts of the front that have been major Russian targets in a winter offensive campaign to fully capture Ukraine's industrialised Donbas region. The Russian offensive has so far yielded scant gains despite thousands of troops killed on both sides in the bloodiest fighting of the war.
At a Ukrainian artillery position in lush pine forests behind the northern stretch of the front, troops fired 155 mm rounds from a French TRF-1 howitzer towards a highway used as a supply road for the Russian-held stronghold of Kreminna.
"Luckily we are holding the same position," a soldier using the call sign "Greenwich" told Reuters. "Because we are facing a very strong enemy with very good arms. And it's a professional army: airborne troops."
As orders came in with coordinates, the crew rushed to their positions around the gun, removed camouflage, aimed, loaded and fired. After three rounds, they lowered the barrel, covered it back up and went back to bunkers in the forest to await further orders. Artillery and small arms fire could be heard in the distance.
'SHELLING DOES NOT STOP'
Front lines in Ukraine have barely budged since November, despite intense fighting. Ukraine recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, but has since kept mostly to the defensive, while Russia has assaulted with hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited from prison as mercenaries.
As the winter turns to spring, the main question in Ukraine is how much longer Russia can sustain its major offensive, and when or if Ukraine can reverse the momentum with a counterassault now in the planning.
On Thursday, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces said Russia's assault on Bakhmut, a small city that has been the focus of the biggest battle of the war, appeared to be losing steam and Kyiv could go on the offensive "very soon".
For now, Ukrainian forces are still focused on preventing the Russians from advancing along more than 300 km (185 miles) of Donbas front, from Kupiansk in the north to Vuhledar in the south.
"All day yesterday the enemy tried to attack in the Avdiivka direction," said Oleksiy Dmytrashkyvskyi, spokesperson for Ukraine's Tavria military command responsible for southern areas. "Shelling of Avdiivka does not stop - artillery, rockets, mortars. It is sad to see how people survive there who do not want to leave, they are mostly elderly people."
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the East command responsible for the front line further north, said Russia's main focus lately had been on the stretch from Kupiansk to Lyman, territory recaptured by Ukrainian forces last year.
Both said the Russians were reinforcing their units after heavy losses. There was no similar update on fighting in the area from the Russian side, which has long claimed to be inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainians.
In Bakhmut itself, Ukrainian troops who weeks ago had appeared likely to abandon the city have instead dug in, a strategy some Western military experts say is risky because of the need to conserve forces for a counterattack.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday some 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, many elderly and with disabilities, were clinging on to existence in horrific circumstances in Bakhmut and surrounding settlements.
"For the civilians that are stuck there, they are living in very dire conditions, spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the [underground] shelters," the ICRC's Umar Khan told a news briefing by video link from Dnipro in Ukraine.
"All you see is people pushed to the very limits of their existence and survival and resilience."
The United Nations issued its latest report on human rights abuses in the war, recording thousands of confirmed deaths of Ukrainian civilians, which it describes as the tip of the iceberg, as well as disappearances, torture and rape, mostly of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas. Russia denies carrying out atrocities in what it calls a "special military operation".
In Kostiantynivka, west of Bakhmut, a Russian missile slammed into a refuge offering a warm shelter for civilians, killing at least three women, local officials said. Photographs released by emergency services showed a wrecked building. A mattress protruded from the rubble. There was no immediate Russian response to the reports.
In the northern Sumy region, an administrative building, a school building, and residential buildings were among those damaged from Russian shelling that killed two civilians, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said.
Russia said its forces had destroyed a hangar housing Ukrainian drones in the Odesa region in the south.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, saying Ukraine's ties to the West were a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.
Dmitry Medvedev, a hardline Kremlin official, said on Friday that Moscow demanded a demilitarised zone around Ukrainian territory it claims to have annexed. Otherwise, it would battle deep into Ukraine.
"Nothing can be ruled out here. If you need to get to Kyiv, then you need to go to Kyiv, if you need to get to Lviv, then you need to go to Lviv in order to destroy this infection," he said.
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