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Ukraine vows to defend Bakhmut as Russian grip tightens

Ukrainian troops will keep defending the eastern city of Bakhmut and reinforcements will be sent in, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says, apparently prolonging the war's bloodiest battle in a bid to break Moscow's assault force.

Moscow has sent thousands of troops in human wave attacks in recent weeks to try to capture Bakhmut and secure its first battlefield victory in more than half a year.

Ukrainian forces have dug trenches further west and in recent days had seemed to be preparing to withdraw.

But Zelenskiy's remarks in an overnight address suggested Kyiv had elected not only to stay and fight on but to reinforce the city, apparently convinced Russia's losses in trying to storm it were still far greater than those of the defenders.

"The command unanimously supported" the decision not to withdraw, Zelenskiy said.

"There were no other positions. I told the commander-in-chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut."

Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago and claims to have annexed almost a fifth of its territory, says taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the surrounding industrial Donbas region, a major war aim.

"The liberation of Artemovsk continues," Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut, re-adopted by the invading Russians.

"The city is an important hub for defending Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions to be conducted deep into Ukraine's defensive lines."

Western strategists say the ruined city has limited value and Russia's assault could be motivated by a need to give President Vladimir Putin a symbolic victory for a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of conscripted reservists and mercenaries from Russia's Wagner private army.

The Ukrainian military command on Tuesday reported a record 1600 Russians killed in the previous 24 hours.

Such figures of enemy dead cannot be confirmed and the sides do not release regular figures of their own casualties.

But past Ukrainian reports of similar spikes in Russian losses have corresponded with major failed Russian assaults.

Urban warfare typically favours defenders.

Some Ukrainian officials have spoken in recent days of a ratio of as many as seven Russians killed at Bakhmut for every Ukrainian lost.

"The opportunity to damage the Wagner Group's elite elements, along with other elite units if they are committed, in a defensive urban warfare setting where the attrition gradient strongly favours Ukraine is an attractive one," wrote the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, explaining Ukraine's apparent decision not to withdraw for now.

It said while the attack on Bakhmut had previously been led by Wagner units formed mainly of convicts recruited from prisons, Russia was now committing higher-value troops there, giving Ukraine more reason to fight on to defeat them.

Reuters journalists have not been inside Bakhmut for a week and could not independently verify the situation there.

The Bakhmut battle has exposed a rift between the regular Russian military and Wagner, whose boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has released videos in recent days accusing the defence ministry of withholding ammunition from his men.

The Russian defence ministry denies withholding ammunition from Wagner but has not responded to Prigozhin's latest accusations.

The Kremlin has remained silent over the feud.

A video apparently showing Russian soldiers gunning down an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war caused an outcry across Ukraine.

The man says "Glory to Ukraine" before multiple shots are heard.

A voice is heard saying "die, b**ch" in Russian as the man slumps to the ground.

"I want us all in unity to respond to his words: 'Glory to the hero. Glory to the heroes. Glory to Ukraine.' And we will find the murderers," Zelenskiy said in his televised address.