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Russian defence minister visits troops in Ukraine

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has paid a rare visit to Russia's forces deployed in Ukraine, awarding medals to military personnel and meeting senior commanders during the trip, a statement and videos issued by his ministry show.

Russia's top military chiefs have visited front lines in Ukraine only sparingly since they sent tens of thousands of Russian troops into the neighbouring country just over a year ago in what it calls a "special military operation".

Shoigu "inspected the forward command post of one of the formations of the Eastern Military District in the South Donetsk direction" during the visit, the Defence Ministry said in a statement published on Telegram.

In a video released by the ministry, Shoigu is seen awarding medals to Russian military personnel and touring a ruined town together with the district's commander, Colonel-General Rustam Muradov.

In a second video, published by the ministry later on Saturday, he is seen chairing a meeting with senior commanders, including Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and General Sergei Surovikin, one of Gerasimov's deputies in the Ukraine campaign.

Shoigu, who has served as defence minister since 2012, has come under harsh criticism over his performance in the conflict from pro-war advocates.

Last month, Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose force has played a significant role in Russia's war effort in Ukraine, accused Shoigu and others of "treason" for withholding supplies of munitions to his militia.

Shoigu's visit comes as the Ukraine armed forces' general staff said in a Facebook post that Russian troops were trying but failing to surround the eastern city of Bakhmut, adding defenders had repelled numerous attacks in the area.

Russian artillery pounded the last routes out of Bakhmut on Friday, aiming to complete the encirclement of the besieged city.

The Ukrainian general staff also said Russian attacks had been foiled in the villages of Vasyukivka, Orikhovo-Vasylivka, Dubovo-Vasylivka and Hryhorivka, all of which lie just to the north of Bakhmut's city centre.

Russia says Bakhmut would be a stepping stone to completing the capture of the Donbas industrial region, one of the Kremlin's most important objectives.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has described Bakhmut as a "fortress," on Saturday thanked defenders in the city in a video message but gave no details of the fighting.

The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Ukraine's actions may point to a looming pullout from parts of Bakhmut.

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.

with AP