‘What madness looks like’: Russia throws forces at small Ukrainian salt mining city

A destroyed house in Soledar. Credit: AP

Russia has intensified its attack on a small Ukrainian salt mining city north of the strategic city of Bakhmut leading to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declaring "this is what madness looks like."

President Zelenskyy said: "Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left.

"The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes.

"This is what madness looks like.”

Soledar is a small city which had a pre-war population of around 10,000, with most of its economy centred around the nearby salt mines.

It is north of the city of Bakhmut, which has been the site of several Russian offensives in recent months.

After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.

President Zelenskyy said Russia's assault was "what madness looks like." Credit: AP

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said Russia has thrown "a large number of storm groups" into the fight for the city.

"The enemy is advancing literally on the bodies of their own soldiers and is massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars, hitting their own troops," she said.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Donetsk region’s Kyiv-appointed governor, on Tuesday described the Russian attacks on Soledar and Bakhmut as relentless.

"The Russian army is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble using all kinds of weapons in their scorched-earth tactics," Kyrylenko said in televised remarks.

"Russia is waging a war without rules, resulting in civilian deaths and suffering."

Wounded soldiers arrive around the clock for emergency treatment at a Ukrainian medical stabilisation centre located near the front line around Bakhmut.

Ukrainian medics tend to a soldiers wound in Bakhmut. Credit: AP

Medics at the centre for combat casualties fought for 30 minutes Monday to save a soldier, but his injuries were too severe.

Another soldier had a head injury after a fragment pierced his helmet.

Medics quickly got his condition stable enough to transfer him to a military hospital for further treatment.

"We fight to the end to save a life," Kostnyantyn Vasylkevich, a surgeon and the centre’s coordinator.

"Of course, it hurts when it is not possible to save them."

The Moscow-backed leader of the occupied areas of Donetsk said Tuesday that Russia’s forces were "very close" to taking over Soledar.

But the gains were coming "at a very high price," Denis Pushilin told Russian state TV.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Russian troops have been supported by the mercenary Wagner Group during the assault on Soledar.

The MoD added: "Ukrainian forces maintain stable defensive lines in depth and control over supply routes" in the area.

Control of the salt and gypsum mines is seen as strategically important because they are the main entrance for a network of tunnels that cover 120 miles.

Before the war, museums displays, football matches and music concerts were held in the tunnels.

A 2007 concert held in the Soledar tunnels. Credit: AP

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was interested in securing the tunnels over the weekend.

He said on Telegram: "The cherry on the cake is the system of Soledar and Bakhmut mines, which is actually a network of underground cities. It not only (has the ability to hold) a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 metres, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about."The MoD said: "Both sides are likely concerned that (the tunnels) could be used for infiltration behind their lines."

Several front-line cities in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have witnessed intense fighting in recent months.

Russia’s grinding eastern offensive captured almost all of Luhansk during the summer.

Donetsk escaped the same fate, and the Russian military subsequently poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut.

Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.

Like Mariupol and other contested cities, Bakhmut has endured a long siege, spending weeks without water and power even before Moscow launched massive strikes to take out public utilities across Ukraine.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Donetsk region’s governor, estimated more than two months ago that 90% of Bakhmut’s prewar population of over 70,000 had fled since Moscow focused on seizing the entire Donbas.

Ukraine’s presidential office said at least four civilians were killed and another 30 wounded in Russian shelling between Monday and Tuesday.

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