Moscow has claimed Russian forces were advancing towards Bakhmut and Vugledar – two key centres of fighting in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, now the flashpoint of the war.

 "Military operations are at the moment progressing with success in areas around Vugledar and Artemovsk," Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting with defence officials on Tuesday Feb. 9, using the Russian name for Bakhmut.

 He also listed seven other settlements in Donetsk that Russian forces had recently "liberated," including the salt-mining town of Soledar that came under Russian control in January.

 The capture of Bakhmut would offer a gateway for Russian forces to continue their advance into Donetsk – a military priority for Moscow.

 The battered town – just south of Soledar – has seen months of fighting, making it the longest-running battle since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

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 Near Yampil, north of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian serviceman Sergiy Solomon told AFP he was concerned about their stockpiles of arms and rumours of a looming Russian offensive.

 "The Russians have tanks, armoured personnel carriers and Grads (rockets), everything you can think of," the 31-year-old former builder said.

 "We have equipment but not a lot of munitions," he added.

 The recent battles around Bakhmut have been described by both sides as among the most costly and bloody of the last year.

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 Russia's Wagner mercenary group has claimed to have spearheaded the assault both for Soledar and Bakhmut.

  Waves of recent recruits are overwhelming Ukrainian defensive lines held by fewer troops. Wagner's boss Yevgeny Prigozhin this week said he had been onboard a fighter jet that had bombed Bakhmut.

 Asked whether Ukrainian forces were preparing to withdraw from Bakhmut, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told local media Tuesday that "no scenario was being ruled out".

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 "All maximum measures are being taken to prevent this from happening," he said, adding that: "for now, Bakhmut is holding on."

 Also on Tuesday, the United States announced a $10 billion sale of 18 Himars precision rocket launchers plus ammunition and other equipment to Poland, a NATO ally that borders on Ukraine.

 Himars launchers have played a key role in Ukraine, allowing Kyiv's forces to carry out precision strikes on supply dumps and other Russian positions.

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