Russia says it repelled surge of Ukrainian attacks in the east

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian serviceman fire a D-30 howitzer towards Russian troops at a position in a front line near the town of Soledar

By Andrew Osborn and Felix Light

(Reuters) -Russia's defence ministry said on Friday its forces repelled a surge of attempted Ukrainian attacks against positions in eastern Ukraine, but indicated that its troops had fallen back in one area for what it said were tactical reasons.

The ministry said in a statement that Ukraine had deployed more than a thousand troops and up to 40 tanks in 26 attempted attacks across a frontline extending over 95 kilometres. It said the attacks had taken place in the direction of the town of Soledar, which is held by Moscow's forces.

"All the attacks by Ukrainian army units were rebuffed," the ministry said. "No breakthroughs in the defensive lines of Russian forces were allowed to take place."

The same statement did indicate however that Russian forces had fallen back a bit in one area of the front, taking up what it described as "more favourable positions" near the Berkhivka reservoir northwest of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said earlier on Friday that Ukrainian forces had advanced by about 2 km around Bakhmut this week and had not given up any positions there in that time.

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose troops have done the bulk of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, said via his press service that what the defence ministry had described was in fact a "rout" which had seen troops flee.

He said Ukraine had been able to completely regain control of a crucial supply road that links Bakhmut with the town of Chasiv Yar and had seized useful higher ground.

The risk, he said, was that if more ground was lost Ukrainian forces could gradually encircle Bakhmut.

Prigozhin, who has been openly feuding with the Defence Ministry for months, has repeatedly accused the top brass of sabotaging Wagner's push for Bakhmut and this week accused them of doing too little to protect Bakhmut's flanks.

The Defence Ministry appeared to push back against that assertion on Friday, saying that Ukrainian attempts to counter-attack Bakhmut's flanks were being repelled.

Prigozhin complained his men were still not getting enough shells and equipment, but said they were still advancing in Bakhmut and only needed to capture around a further 20 buildings to take full control of the city.

Bakhmut, much of which now lies in ruins, has been the focus of fierce fighting for months.

Reuters was unable to verify the situation on the battlefield.

(Reporting by Reuters reportersAditional reporting by Felix LightEditing by Andrew Osborn and Frank Jack Daniel)