Russia says controls Maryinka in east Ukraine, Kyiv denies the claim

MOSCOW/KYIV (Reuters) -Russia said on Sunday that its forces have gained full control of Maryinka in Ukraine’s east, but Kyiv’s military denied Moscow’s claim, saying Ukrainian troops were still within the borders of the blighted town.

“Our assault units (…) have today completely liberated the settlement of Maryinka,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a televised meeting.

Putin said control of the town, which lies some five kms (three miles) southwest of the city of Donetsk, will allow the Russian forces to move enemy combat units away from Donetsk.

“Our troops (now) have the opportunity to reach a wider operational area,” he said in a video of the exchange between him and Shoigu posted online by a Kremlin journalist.

But Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military, told the Ukrainian national broadcaster on Monday, that fierce fighting for the town continued.

“Our troops are in the administrative borders of Maryinka, the battles for the city continue,” Shtupun said. “The city is completely destroyed, but it is incorrect to talk about the complete capture of Maryinka.”

Reuters could not independently verify the reports or who controls Maryinka, a small town in the Donetsk region that had a pre-war population of about 10,000 people and has since been turned into rubble.

The reports on the assault on Maryinka came as Moscow pushes on with its most recent offensive along the whole eastern front aiming to take control of more Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine troops have long built strong fortification in Maryinka, allowing them to repel numerous Russian attacks there. If Russia’s claims about taking over the town prove true, it would be Moscow’s most significant battlefield gains since May.

Moscow captured in May the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the theatre of some of the bloodiest fighting in the 22-month long war. Ukraine’s counteroffensive that followed in June has aimed to retake land in the country’s south and east, including Bakhmut.

Kyiv’s forces, however, have struggled to make significant progress in their counteroffensive in the face of entrenched Russian resistance.

Russian troops have also intensified land and air-based attacks on the nearby town of Avdiivka since mid-October as the focal point of their slow-moving push through eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Avdiivka was briefly captured in 2014 by Russian-backed separatists who seized large chunks of eastern Ukraine. Fortifications were later built around the town – seen as a gateway to Donetsk.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Writing by Vladimir Soldatkin and Lidia Kelly;Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Barbara Lewis and Michael Perry)