Pressure is mounting on Ukrainian troops and civilians hunkering down in Bakhmut, as Kyiv’s forces try to help residents flee the beleaguered eastern city.
A woman was killed and two men were badly wounded by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of Bakhmut on Saturday, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them.
A Ukrainian army representative who asked not to be named for operational reasons told The Associated Press news agency that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave the city by vehicle, and that people had to flee on foot instead.
For months, Bakhmut has been a key target of Moscow’s grinding eastern offensive, with Russian troops, including large forces from the private Wagner group, inching ever closer to Kyiv’s key eastern stronghold.
Journalists from the AP near Bakhmut on Saturday reported seeing a pontoon bridge set up by Ukrainian soldiers to help the city’s few remaining residents reach the nearby village of Khromove. Later, they saw at least five houses on fire as a result of attacks in Khromove.
Ukrainian units during the past 36 hours destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to UK military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.
The UK defence ministry said in the latest of its regular Twitter updates that the destruction of the bridges came as Russian fighters made further inroads into Bakhmut’s northern suburbs, ratcheting up the pressure on its Ukrainian defenders.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Kyiv’s actions may point to a looming Ukrainian pullout from parts of the city.
It said Ukrainian troops may “conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut,” while seeking to inhibit Russian movement there and limit exit routes to the west.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said Friday his fighters had “practically encircled” Bakhmut. In the latest video, Prigozhin directly called on Zelenskyy to abandon the town.
Capturing Bakhmut would not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it could rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press towards other Ukrainian strongholds in the eastern Donetsk region.
As the fighting raged on, civilians remaining in the area spoke about their daily struggles amid the near-constant enemy fire. Bakhmut resident Hennadiy Mazepa and his wife Natalia Ishkova both chose to remain in Bakhmut, even as fierce battles reduced much of the city to rubble.
Speaking to the AP on Saturday, Ishkova said that they suffered from a lack of food and basic utilities.
“Humanitarian [aid] is given to us only once a month. There is no electricity, no water, no gas,” she said. “I pray to God that all who remain here will survive.”
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s emergency services reported that the death toll from a Russian missile attack on Thursday that hit a five-storey apartment block in southern Ukraine has risen to 10.
The Main Directorate of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said in an online statement that rescuers had pulled three more bodies from the wreckage overnight, some 36 hours after a Russian missile tore through four floors of the building in the riverside city of Zaporizhzhia. It said that a child was among those killed, and that the rescue effort was continuing.
Russian shelling on Saturday also killed two residents of front-line communities in the surrounding Zaporizhia region, the local military administration reported in a Telegram post.
A 57-year-old woman and 68-year-old man also died in Nikopol, a town further west that neighbours the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as Russian forces stationed there fired artillery shells and rockets at Ukrainian-held territory across the Dnieper River, regional Governor Serhiy Lysak reported Saturday.
In the southern Kherson region, a Russian grenade slammed into a police van in the village of Antonivka, wounding four officers, the local police force reported on its Facebook page.
Zelenskyy has pledged to defend “fortress Bakhmut” for as long as possible, and called on allies to whip up their support to help his men do so.
On Saturday, the president of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola visited Ukraine, where she called for the country to be allowed to begin its EU membership negotiations this year.
US President Joe Biden on Friday hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for his first visit since the offensive, in a display of partnership after friction over supplying tanks to Ukraine.
Before the meeting, the Kremlin warned weapon deliveries would only “prolong the conflict and have sad consequences for the Ukrainian people”.
The US responded to Moscow’s warning against further arming Ukraine by offering another $400m in security assistance.