By Tom Balmforth and Vladyslav Smilianets
KYIV/NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukraine said on Tuesday its forces were still holding onto positions in the eastern mining town of Soledar, withstanding assaults by wave after wave of Russian soldiers and mercenaries seeking Moscow's first battlefield victory for months.
Earlier, the British Defence Ministry said Russian troops and fighters of Wagner, a mercenary company run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, had probably taken control of most of the settlement of Soledar after four days of advances.
But Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said in a statement on Tuesday evening that fighting for the town was still raging.
"The enemy disregards the heavy losses of its personnel and continues to storm actively," she said. "The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters. Our fighters are bravely holding the defence."
There was no immediate word from Moscow on the situation in the town and Reuters was not able to verify it.
Seizing Soledar would be Russia's most substantial gain since last August, after a series of humiliating retreats throughout much of the second half of 2022. Russian forces have been fighting for months to capture the nearby larger city of Bakhmut, a few kilometres (miles) to the southwest.
But any victory would come at a massive cost, with troops from both sides having taken heavy losses in some of the most intense combat since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago. Kyiv has released pictures in recent days showing what it says are scores of Russian soldiers strewn dead in muddy fields.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would be a major step toward taking full control of Ukraine's Donetsk region, one of four provinces it claimed to have annexed two months ago.
"Russia's Soledar axis is highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north and disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication," the British defence ministry said in a short daily intelligence briefing earlier on Tuesday.
In an overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged that the situation in Soledar was "difficult", but said Ukrainian defenders had bought more time by holding on, and Kyiv would eventually drive Russians out of the entire eastern Donbas industrial region.
"And what did Russia want to gain there? Everything is completely destroyed, there is almost no life left. And thousands of their people were lost: the whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes," he said. "This is what madness looks like."
Near Bakhmut, a team of Ukrainian soldiers was firing volleys of shells from a heavy anti-aircraft gun at what they said were Russian ground positions, across a barren snowy field.
"We're frying orcs," said soldier with the nom de guerre "Pilot", using a common Ukrainian slur for Russian troops.
His crew receives coordinates of Russian bases from spotters or drones. They periodically shell Russian bases, and unleash storms of heavy fire when enemy troops advance: "If they creep in very actively, then we kill them in great numbers."
KYIV SEEKS MORE WEAPONS
Wagner, a mercenary company founded by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken a leading role in the Bakhmut fighting as Russia's regular military forces elsewhere on the front line have dug into mostly defensive positions.
Prigozhin, whose fighters are also active across Africa and the Middle East, has released videos showing himself recruiting fighters in Russian prisons with offers of pardons.
He said on Saturday Soledar was important for a network of cavernous mining tunnels. Washington says Prigozhin may want personal control of the area's minerals.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly urged Ukraine's Western supporters to supply more sophisticated weapons. Last week, one of Ukraine's biggest pleas was answered when the United States, Germany and France promised large numbers of Western armoured fighting vehicles for the first time. Kyiv is still seeking Western battle tanks.
In a nod to Kyiv's battlefield successes of recent months, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Kharkiv. The eastern city, Ukraine's second largest, was nearly surrounded by Russian forces and under constant bombardment until Ukraine drove the Russians from its ramparts in a breakthrough in September that shifted the war's momentum.
"This city is a symbol of the absolute insanity of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and of the endless suffering that people, especially here in the east of the country, are confronted with every day," she said. She promised aid for Ukraine and support in its bid to join the EU.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's spokesperson said London had not yet made a final decision on sending tanks to Ukraine. A U.S. official said Ukrainian troops would soon arrive in the United States to begin training on Patriot air defence missiles, which Washington promised to Kyiv last month.
In addition to sending weapons to Kyiv, the West has repeatedly tightened economic sanctions on Moscow. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the latest move, a price cap on Russian oil, appeared to be achieving its goals of keeping Russian oil on the market while limiting Moscow's revenues.
"While the crude oil price cap has only been in effect for around a month, we have already seen early progress towards both of those goals, with senior Russian officials having admitted that the price cap was cutting into Russia's energy revenues," Yellen said.
Russia began what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine on Feb. 24, claiming Ukraine's close ties with the West and ambition to join NATO posed a security threat. Kyiv and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to seize territory from Ukraine.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Michael Perry, Alex Richardson and Peter Graff; editing by Himani Sarkar, Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)