UPDATED: Russia says it has taken control of Ukraine’s Soledar

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Jan 13 (Reuters) – Russia said on Friday that its forces had taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, claiming to have made its first big battlefield gain after half a year of military setbacks.

Russian forces captured the town, long the focus of heavy fighting and bombardment, on Thursday evening, the defence ministry said.

It said this would make it possible to cut off Ukrainian supply routes to the larger town of Bakhmut, to the southwest, and trap remaining Ukrainian forces there.

Reuters was not able to immediately verify Russia’s claim, which came after days of silence from the ministry about the fate of the town.

The head of Russian mercenary group Wagner had said on Wednesday that his forces had achieved the complete “liberation” of the mining town of Soledar, a claim denied by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy who said fighting continued.

“The capture of Soledar was made possible by the constant bombardment of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile forces and artillery of a grouping of Russian forces,” Moscow’s defence ministry said.

Ukraine said earlier on Friday that its forces were still holding out in Soledar after a “hot” night of fighting, in what has become one of the bloodiest battlefields of the entire war.

Both sides have endured heavy losses in the battle for the small town.

Moscow has been seeking its first major victory after half a year of humiliating retreats. Kyiv says Russia is throwing wave upon wave of soldiers into a pointless fight for a bombed-out wasteland.

U.S. officials said a Russian victory in Soledar, or even in Bakhmut, a city ten times larger where the Russians have so far been repelled, would mean little for the overall trajectory of the war.

“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House, “and it certainly isn’t going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down.”

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A handout satellite image made available by Maxar Technologies shows destroyed buildings in Soledar, Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that fighting was continuing in Soledar, an eastern Ukrainian city that Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed to control earlier, and that the front was holding. EPA-EFE/MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES HANDOUT —

ALLEGED WAR CRIMES

Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine, the biggest land war in Europe since World War Two, has resulted in more than 50,000 reports of alleged war crimes, said Ukraine’s top war crimes prosecutor Yuriy Belousov.

The reports of alleged torture by pro-Moscow forces include electric shocks to genitals and other parts of the body, beatings, various forms of suffocation and sexual violence.

Moscow says it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to protect the security of Russia and denies committing war crimes or targeting civilians. Moscow in turn accuses Ukraine of war crimes and the West of ignoring them.

The United Nations in November said it had found evidence that both sides had tortured prisoners of war.

LEADERSHIP CHANGE

Kremlin-watchers were examining Russia’s latest switch of battlefield leadership, a day after Valery Gerasimov, chief of the military’s general staff, was unexpectedly given direct command of the invasion.

The previous commander of three months’ standing, Army General Sergei Surovikin, was effectively demoted to become one of Gerasimov’s three deputies.

Moscow explained the decision – at least the third abrupt change of top commander in the 11-month conflict – as a response to the campaign’s growing importance.

Across Ukraine, the front lines have barely budged since Russia’s last big retreat in the south two months ago. Kyiv hopes heavy armour from Western allies will allow it to resume advances.

Western countries have started to offer Kyiv advanced weaponry like the sophisticated U.S. Patriot missile system. The United States, Germany and France last week pledged armoured fighting vehicles and Ukraine’s latest requests have focused on battle tanks.

Polish President Andrzej Duda promised Ukraine 14 German-made Leopard battle tanks. Zelenskiy told Polish state-run broadcaster TVP Info that this could pave the way for other countries to do the same. Britain is considering sending tanks.

Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, saying Kyiv’s ties with the West threatened Russia’s security. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war to seize territory.

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