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KRAMATORSK, Ukraine: Russia claimed control of Soledar after fierce fighting on Friday, with Kyiv immediately denying that “heavy fighting” was still ongoing in the small eastern town.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that “the liberation of the town of Soledar, which is of great importance for the continuation of offensive operations” in the Donetsk region, was completed in the evening of January 12.

“Heavy fighting is still going on in Soledar,” Serguiï Tcherevaty, the spokesman of the eastern command of the Ukrainian army, immediately responded to Ukrainian television.

According to him, “Ukrainian armed forces control the situation (in Soledar) in difficult conditions in front of “the best units (of the Russian mercenary group) Wagner and other Russian special forces”.

On Ukrainian television, Mr. Tcherevaty accused Moscow of “spreading false + information noise” about “creating mistrust of (their) army among Ukrainians” over the conquest of the city, once famous for its salt mines.

“Small retreats or maneuvers do not mean that they should be taken as major defeats.

Early in the morning, Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Ganna Maliar spoke of a “high-intensity (Russian) attack” with “ongoing” fighting during a “hot” night in the region. “This is a difficult phase of the war,” he said.

According to the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the capture of the small town of Soledar, a pre-war town of about 10,000 people, “would not represent an imminent siege of Bakhmouth”. Russian army located 15 kilometers southwest of Soledar.

He noted in his daily bulletin that this “will not allow Russian forces to exercise control over important land lines connecting Ukraine with Bakmut.”

Fighting in and around Soledar has been going on for several months, but the intensity has increased sharply in recent days.

On Wednesday, Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigogine, claimed Soledar had already been captured by his own men, before being quickly contradicted not only by Kyiv, but also by the Russian Defense Ministry, with whom he maintains a competitive relationship.

– Significant losses –

In its daily bulletin, ISW said it believed “Russian forces (in fact) probably captured Soledar on January 11” or Wednesday.

ISW specifically cited “geo-tagged photos published on January 11 and 12” in support of its claims, which “show that Russian forces are in control of most, if not all, of Soledar and have apparently pushed Ukrainian forces out of the western edge of the area.” .

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky promised to provide his army with “everything necessary” to resist Russian attacks in Soledar and Bakhmut.

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, admitted to AFP that his side had “significant losses” in this “bloody battle” without providing figures, estimating that they were “large” in the opposing camp, the Russian Defense Ministry said. did not confirm.

In a sign of the intensity of Russia’s offensive, Ukraine’s military said Thursday it had repelled attacks in more than a dozen locations in the region.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a press release.

To better coordinate and support its offensive on the ground, the Kremlin appointed a new head of operations in Ukraine in the past two days: General Valery Gerassimov, an experienced soldier who already heads the general staff of the Russian army.

– “de facto” member of NATO –

At the international level of the conflict, Ukraine announced on Friday that it is a “de facto” member of NATO.

“This is true. This is a fact,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told the BBC. “I am sure that in the near future we will become a de jure member of NATO,” he repeated Kiev’s official request on this matter.

The alliance also announced Friday the deployment of AWACS surveillance aircraft in Romania starting Tuesday to support its increased presence in the region and “monitor Russian military activity.”

The UN Security Council is also due to meet at 20:00 GMT to discuss the situation in Ukraine, nearly 11 months after the start of the Russian invasion.

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