Civilians flee Bakhmut as Ukrainian pullout looms
Pressure from Russian forces have mounted on Ukrainians defending Bakhmut, as residents attempted to flee with help from troops who Western analysts say may be preparing to withdraw from the key eastern stronghold.
A woman was killed and two men were badly wounded by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of the city in Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them.
A Ukrainian army representative who asked not to be named for operational reasons told The Associated Press that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave Bakhmut by vehicle and that people had to flee on foot instead.
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Bakhmut has for months been a prime target of Moscow's grinding eastern offensive in the war, with Russian troops, including forces from the private Wagner Group, inching ever closer.
Defence and security expert John Blaxland told Today this morning Russia had suffered huge casualties in the battle for the city but appeared on the verge of capturing Bakhmut.
"It would appear the Russians have taken enormous casualties, reports of 10,000 or more casualties … They have been continuing to throw them in human wave tactics."
He said controlling the city would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-needed military success even though Bakhmut has limited strategic value.
Losing control of the city would also impact the morale of Ukraine's military and the standing of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who is dependent on western backing, Blaxland said.
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"Does the west… Western Europe, the United States and others, do they keep funding up the Ukrainians if it the Ukrainians can't deliver on the battlefield."
An AP team near Bakhmut on Saturday saw a pontoon bridge set up by Ukrainian soldiers to help the few remaining residents reach the nearby village of Khromove. Later they saw at least five houses on fire as a result of attacks in Khromove.
Ukrainian units over the past 36 hours destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to UK military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.
The UK defence ministry said in the latest of its regular Twitter updates that the destruction of the bridges came as Russian fighters made further inroads into Bakhmut's northern suburbs.
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The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Kyiv's actions may point to a looming pullout from parts of the city.
It said Ukrainian troops may "conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut," while seeking to inhibit Russian movement there and limit exit routes to the west.
Capturing Bakhmut would not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might rupture Ukraine's supply lines and allow the Kremlin's forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in the Donetsk region.
Civilians spoke about daily struggles as the fighting raged on nearly nonstop, reducing much of Bakhmut to rubble. Husband and wife Hennadiy Mazepa and Natalia Ishkova, who chose to remain in the city, said they lack food and basic utilities.
Humanitarian (aid) is given to us only once a month. There is no electricity, no water, no gas," Ishkova told AP on Saturday.
"I pray to God that all who remain here will survive," she added.
At the United Nations on Friday, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said UN humanitarian staff reported "intensive hostilities" near Bakhmut and the few humanitarian partners on the ground were focusing on evacuating the most vulnerable.
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