Russia claims control of Ukraine's Soledar

Russia's defence ministry says its forces have taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine.

Russian forces captured the town, long the focus of heavy fighting and bombardment, on Thursday evening, the ministry said, according to a state media report on Friday.

This would now allow its troops to cut off Ukrainian forces from the nearby, much larger town of Bakhmut, it added.

Reuters was not able to immediately verify the defence ministry's claim.

Ukraine said earlier on Friday its forces were still holding out in Soledar after a "hot" night of fighting in what has become one of the bloodiest battlefields of the entire war.

Both sides have endured heavy losses in the battle for the small town.

Moscow is seeking what would be its first big battlefield gain after half a year of humiliating retreats.

Kyiv says Russia is throwing wave upon wave of soldiers into a pointless fight for a bombed-out wasteland.

Ukraine had said its troops were holding out against pro-Moscow forces in Soledar as more than 500 civilians including children remain trapped there.

In a video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday thanked two units in Soledar that he said "are holding their positions and inflicting significant losses on the enemy".

He did not give more details.

Zelenskiy said he and senior Ukrainian commanders analysed the need for reinforcements in Soledar and nearby towns in the eastern industrial area known as the Donbas and next steps for the coming days.

Russia's ultra-nationalist contract militia Wagner Group, run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, claimed to have taken Soledar after intense fighting it said left the town strewn with Ukrainian dead.

Moscow however, had held off officially proclaiming a victory, which would be its first significant gain in six months.

"At the moment, there are still some small pockets of resistance in Soledar," Andrei Bayevsky, a Russian-installed local politician, said in an online broadcast.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation.

Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian state TV 559 civilians remained in Soledar, including 15 children, and could not be evacuated from the community that had a pre-war population of about 10,000.

Drone footage obtained by Reuters of a medical evacuation from Soledar by Ukrainian soldiers showed deserted streets where just a few ruined buildings remained standing, amid blasted trees and smouldering rubble.

United States officials questioned the importance of a Russian victory in Soledar.

"Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it's not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself," US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House.

"It certainly isn't going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down."

Oleksandr Kovalenko, an analyst at Ukraine's Information Resistance Military-political group, said the battle for Soledar had eased the pressure on the more strategic town of Bakhmut.

"Soledar has already fulfilled its main role - drawing off a large amount of Russian resources and destroying them," he said on the nv.ua media website.

Kovalenko said Soledar's cavernous salt mines could prove lucrative for Russia.

Moscow's February invasion of Ukraine, the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, has resulted in more than 50,000 reports of alleged war crimes, Ukraine's top war crimes prosecutor Yuriy Belousov said.

Moscow says it is conducting a "special military operation" in Ukraine to protect the security of Russia and denies committing war crimes or targeting civilians.

Moscow in turn accuses Ukraine of war crimes and the West of ignoring them.