Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Thursday there was fierce fighting in Soledar, but that Ukraine’s forces were holding on.
Malyar spoke a day after conflicting claims about who controlled the town in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday called the battle for Soledar “a very fluid, dynamic environment, dynamic fight” amid reports that it had fallen to the Russians.
“At this point, we can’t corroborate that reporting,” Austin said in joint press briefing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and their Japanese counterparts at the State Department.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, said Wednesday his forces had captured all of the mining town and killed 500 Ukrainian troops in heavy fighting.
Minutes later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the fighting continued.
The Russians "are trying to pretend that part of our town of Soledar ... is some sort of a Russian possession," he said in a video address. "But fighting continues. The Donetsk theater of operations is holding."
In a statement on Facebook, the Ukrainian general staff said Russian forces were suffering heavy losses. Russia has been trying to capture the salt-mining town since August because of its salt caverns and proximity to Bakhmut.
The area is one of the most active in the conflict, making it difficult for an independent assessment of the situation.
A Reuters photographer who recently reached the edge of Soledar said she could see smoke rising over the town, and the incoming artillery fire was relentless, Reuters reported. Ambulances were waiting to receive the wounded on the road from Soledar to Bakhmut.
Also Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, was taking over command of the forces in Ukraine. General Sergei Surovikin, who had held the job for three months, will now be Gerasimov’s deputy.
Britain's Defense Ministry said the move is “an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgement that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals.”
It added in a tweet that Russian ultranationalists and military bloggers critical of Gerasimov are likely to greet the news with “extreme displeasure.” (KB/VOA)