By Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey
NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukraine said on Friday it had repelled attacks by Russian forces trying to recapture land they had lost around the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, where Kyiv says it has inflicted heavy Russian casualties.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian Wagner private army that is leading the assault on the city, said in a Telegram message that "heavy, bloody battles" were continuing and claimed his men were close to completing the capture of Bakhmut itself.
He has though made over-optimistic military assessments in the past and Reuters was unable to verify his account.
A Ukrainian mortar unit near the city told Reuters it had advanced this week, but was facing heavy fire from Russian forces who appeared to have significant strength in manpower and stocks of ammunition.
"The fire was intensive this week. Our forces pushed forward a little, stopped near the canal. It's hard to push them (the Russians) out of there," said a soldier with the call sign Medvid, which means "bear" in Ukrainian.
The unit's troops said they were firing around 100 mortar rounds a day at Russian positions. They said their location could not be disclosed.
Ukraine says it has made small advances this week on the flanks of the city in the industrial Donbas region even as Wagner has inched closer to capturing the city itself.
Deputy Ukrainian Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said the Russian forces had gained some ground inside Bakhmut but did not control the city.
"Extremely fierce fighting continues in the area of Bakhmut. The enemy cannot win with quality, so he tries with quantity," she said in a Telegram post. Russia had boosted its number of troops and amounts of ammunition, she said.
"The rate of our troops' advance in the suburbs of Bakhmut today is somewhat reduced. At the same time, the enemy is unable to regain lost positions - our soldiers repel all enemy attacks in this area," she said.
Moscow regards its assault on Bakhmut as an important part of a campaign to capture the rest of the Donbas region.
(Reporting by Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and David Ljunggren; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Timothy Heritage and Grant McCool)