By Anna Pruchnicka
(Reuters) -Russian and Ukrainian forces fought fierce battles around the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka on Thursday after Moscow launched one of its biggest military offensives in months.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces were holding their ground on the third day of battle, but municipal officials said the Russian attacks were relentless.
Ukrainian officials described scenes of destruction in and around the town amid round-the-clock Russian attacks.
“Everything is so difficult and tense. For three days, there as been no letup in battles, day or night,” Vitaliy Barabash, head of the city’s military administration, told Espreso TV.
“The enemy is using all available means: artillery, grad (missile launchers), mortars and everything else. We are not talking about isolated strikes. No one counts them any longer. This is endless shelling.”
Video posted on social media by Ukrainian military commander Maskym Zhorin showed smoke pouring from the shells of shattered, abandoned apartment buildings. Empty streets were littered with rubble and smashed installations.
Kyiv says Moscow has redirected many soldiers and large amounts of equipment to the Avdiivka area, showing it can hit back over four months into a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and south that has encountered stiff Russian resistance.
“Avdiivka. We are holding our ground. It is Ukrainian courage and unity that will determine how this war will end,” Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app alongside photos of Ukrainian troops and of Avdiivka’s entrance sign.
Ukrainian Special Operations Forces said Kyiv’s troops had “foiled the plans of the crazed enemy, repelled all attacks and held their positions”.
SYMBOL OF RESISTANCE
Avdiivka is home to a big coking plant in the southwest of the Donetsk region and lies just northwest of the Russian-held city of Donetsk.
It has become a symbol of resistance, holding out against Russian troops who invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and helping ensure Moscow has been unable to gain full control of the region even though it says it has annexed it.
Ukrainian forces had been defending Avdiivka since long before last year’s invasion, holding the line against Russian-backed militants who took control of territory in east Ukraine in 2014 after Russian forces seized Crimea.
Just over 1,600 residents of a pre-war population of 32,000 remain, but shelling ruled out a mass evacuation, Barabash said.
The attack on Avdiivka is one of the few big offensives Moscow has launched in months as its troops focus on holding back Kyiv’s counteroffensive, which has made slow progress through vast Russian minefields and heavily fortified trenches.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces had inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces in areas including Avdiivka but gave few details.
Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern group of forces, said Russia saw Avdiivka as an opportunity to win a significant victory and “turn the tide of fighting”.
“Today the capture or encirclement of Avdiivka is probably the most it can achieve at this stage,” he said.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), an American non-profit research group and think-tank, said geolocated footage showed Russia had advanced in some villages southwest and northwest of Avdiivka this week.
But encircling Avdiivka was likely to require more forces than Russia has committed to its offensive, it said.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleksandr Hetman said Russian forces were pouring resources into a drive on Avdiivka to draw Ukrainian forces away from an advance in the south which could disrupt Moscow’s supply network along a key rail line.
“That is why they are moving all their forces there (to Avdiivka),” Hetman told Ukrainian NV Radio. “They are attacking in other sectors in order to halt our offensive.”
Russia has also intensified air strikes on Danube River ports in the southern Odesa region in recent weeks, attacking Kyiv’s main route for food exports since Moscow quit a deal allowing shipments via the Black Sea in July.
In the latest overnight attacks, a military spokesperson said a grain storage facility had been hit in the Odesa region. She said some grain had been damaged but did not say how much.
(Additional reporting by Olena Harmahs Yuliia Dysa; Editing by Alex Richardson, Timothy Heritage, Ron Popeski and Deepa Babington)