Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut ‘under severe pressure’ as Russian forces say they are closing in

ITV News' Martha Fairlie reports on the ongoing fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

The Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut is "under severe pressure", Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said, as Russia aims to complete the encirclement of the besieged city.

Bakhmut has been the focus of intense fighting for months, with the head of Russia's Wagner private army claiming it is almost completely surrounded and now only has limited routes out.

Russia taking the city would represent Moscow's first major victory in half a year after the bloodiest battle of the war.

A bridge in Khromove, a nearby town, has been damaged by Russian tank shelling and Ukrainians have been digging new trenches for defensive positions to the west, Reuters reports.

A Ukrainian police officer helps an elderly woman as she evacuates to safe areas in Chasiv Yar near Bakhmut. Credit: AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

A woman was killed and two men were badly injured by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of the city on Saturday, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them.

An anonymous Ukrainian army representative told AP that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave Bakhmut by vehicle and that people had to flee on foot instead.

In its latest intelligence update, the MoD said Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000, are vulnerable to attacks on multiple sides.

"Regular Russian Army and Wagner Group forces have made further advances into the northern suburbs of the city, which is now a Ukrainian-held salient, vulnerable to Russian attack on three sides," the MoD tweeted.

"Ukraine is reinforcing the area with elite units, and within the last 36 hours two key bridges in Bakhmut have been destroyed, including a vital bridge connecting the city to the last main supply route from Bakhmut to the city of Chasiv Yar."

Denys Yaroslavskyi, commander of a Ukrainian army unit at Bakhmut, described the situation since the morning as "a slaughterhouse on both sides".

But Ukrainian troops have been trying to repair roads, and more soldiers are heading in the direction of the frontline, suggesting that Ukraine is not giving up the fight for the city.

In the past 24 hours, Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut have repelled numerous attacks. The city's mayor reports they are now engaged in street fighting.

One commander said Russian assault forces are running out and are trying to "beg" the Ukrainian army to leave the city.

It comes as video released by Russia's RIA state news agency contained audio of a fighter saying Ukraine's army is destroying infrastructure in areas near the city to stop a Russian encirclement.

A view of the town of Bakhmut, the site of some of the heaviest battles with Russian troops, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine. Credit: AP Photo/Yevhen Titov

The video - which reportedly showed Wagner fighters walking alongside a damaged industrial facility - could not immediately be independently verified.

"Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut," Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said, as he urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to order a retreat to save his soldiers' lives. "Only one route (out) is left," he added. "The pincers are closing."

Why is Bakhmut strategically important to Russia?

Bakhmut lies in Donetsk province, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed last year.

Moscow controls half of Donetsk province. To take the remaining half of that province, Russian forces must go through Bakhmut, the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities.

Analysts say the fall of Bakhmut would be a blow for Ukraine and offer tactical advantages to Russia, but would not prove decisive to the war’s outcome.

Mr Zelenskyy has described the city as a "fortress", telling reporters in early February: "Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress."

In February, ITV News Correspondent John Ray spent time with the crew of a Ukrainian missile launcher a few miles from the frontline, bearing witness to the harsh reality of war on the battlefield.

On one day of filming, an aid worker was killed, and others gravely injured when they were hit by Russian artillery.

A few thousand civilians remained inside the city, previously known for salt and gypsum mines, but most had fled.

John Ray reported last month from eastern Ukraine where troops are still facing a fierce resistance

A key concern for Ukraine is its dwindling ammunition stocks as the war continues to rage past its one year anniversary.

Estonia, which shares a border and long history with Russia, has been driving the EU and its NATO allies to provide huge amounts of artillery shells to replenish Ukraine's depleted stocks.

“Russia uses daily (what) the European Union produces per month, and in the current military industry capabilities, we can reach the need of Ukraine (in) around six years, so this is fully unacceptable,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told reporters last month.

Included in a $400m US aid package, announced on Friday, are rockets for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, demolition munitions and equipment for clearing obstacles.

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