Ukraine tanks join attacks along 100km front: Russia
Russian officials say Ukrainian forces have attacked Russian positions along almost 100km of the front line near Soledar, a small mining town near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
As anticipation grows of a Ukrainian counteroffensive aiming to drive Russian forces out of the land they have seized in the last 15 months, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed earlier reports that Ukraine had made some gains near Bakhmut but appeared to play down suggestions of a wider push.
The Russian defence ministry said 26 attacks involving more than a thousand troops and up to 40 tanks near Soledar on Thursday had been repulsed.
In one area, Russian forces had fallen back to "more favourable positions" near a reservoir northwest of Bakhmut.
Reuters was not able to verify the battlefield reports and there was no immediate response from Ukraine, which during previous offensives has maintained strict silence about its operations while they were underway.
An attack at Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, would appear to substantiate reports by Russia's Wagner private army that Ukraine was launching its offensive on the city's north and south flanks, aiming to surround it.
Earlier this week, a Ukrainian unit claimed to have routed a Russian brigade southwest of Bakhmut in Ukraine's biggest advance for six months.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has said the flanks, guarded by regular troops, are crumbling, putting his group's positions inside the city at risk.
Russia's defence ministry denied this.
Without giving details, Ukrainian deputy defence minister Maliar said the country's forces had advanced by about 2km this week around Bakhmut without ceding any ground.
A claim of such swift progress is rare in an attritional battle in which Russia has made incremental advances over the last 10 months without being able to claim the city.
But she seemed to imply this was not the start of the major, long-awaited assault: "This situation has actually been going on in the east for several months," she wrote.
"That's it! Nothing more is happening."
Russia has been preparing since last northern hemisphere autumn for an expected onslaught, and built lines of anti-tank fortifications along hundreds of kilometres of front.
It has also begun relocating civilians who have been living near the conflict zone in Ukraine's partially occupied Zaporizhzhia province to areas farther from the expected advance by Ukrainian forces.
"We used to go out and watch (the shelling). Especially at night, you could see the flashes as they launch," said Lyudmila, a 22-year-old from Kamianka-Dniprovska now in makeshift accommodation in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian port of Berdyansk.
"We've had shells land nearby and when it landed the entire sky was red," she said.
In comments published on Friday, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet said its defences were also being tightened amid a flurry of Ukrainian drone strikes targeting its home base, the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned in a Telegram post that "our path ahead is not easy" but said Ukraine was "much stronger now than last year or in any other year of this war for freedom and independence of our country".
The United States and its European allies have sent hundreds of modern tanks and armoured vehicles to Ukraine and trained thousands of its soldiers in anticipation of the offensive.
On Thursday Ukraine secured a promise from the United Kingdom of long-range cruise missiles, breaking one of the last big taboos over weaponry previously deemed to carry too great a risk of provoking Russia.
In the past, other allies have quickly followed suit after the UK announced new types of weapons.
In South Africa, which says it is neutral, a minister responsible for arms control said the government had not approved any weapons shipments to Russia late last year, after the US ambassador said a Russian ship had picked up arms there in December.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced an inquiry.