President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday visited the eastern frontline city of Bakhmut, now the epicentre of fighting in Russia's nearly 10-month invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky met military officials and handed out awards to Ukrainian servicemen, who have been holding back a fierce and months-long Russian military campaign for the city.

To gain control of the city, Russia is believed to have relied on mercenaries, prison conscripts and newly mobilised soldiers to send waves of attacks against Ukrainian positions.

The brutal trench warfare and artillery battles around Bakhmut -- once known for its vineyards and cavernous salt mines -- have flattened large portions of the city and its surroundings.

"I'd like to wish there was light but the situation is so difficult that there is light and then there is no light. The main thing is that there light is inside," Zelensky was cited as saying by state media.

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The visit comes after Vladimir Putin said earlier Tuesday the situation in four territories of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed but does not control militarily was "extremely difficult".

Putin in September announced the annexation of four regions in the east and south of Ukraine after Moscow proxies held referendums there, denounced as a sham by Kyiv and the West.

His troops never fully controlled any of the territories and last month were forced to retreat from the regional capital of the southern Kherson region after a months-long Ukrainian counteroffensive.

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"The situation in the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult," Putin told the Russian security services on their professional holiday.

Singling out those working in the "new regions of Russia", he added that "the people living there, the citizens of Russia, rely on you, on your protection".

- 'Closely monitoring' Belarus border -

 Putin said that "maximum composure and concentration of forces" was required of Russia's counterintelligence operations.

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"It is necessary to strictly suppress the actions of foreign intelligence services, to quickly identify traitors, spies and saboteurs," he added.

Putin's comments came one day after his first visit in several years to neighbouring Belarus for talks with strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who allowed Russian troops to use his country to initiate their invasion of Ukraine in February.

Ukraine said after the visit that there was a growing threat of another potential attack from Belarusian territory but that its forces were taking steps to prepare.

"We closely monitor the weapons being transferred from Russia," said Sergiy Nayev, commander of Ukraine's joint forces.

"The level of the military threat is gradually increasing but we are also taking adequate measures."

Putin denied plans to absorb Belarus during the visit Monday but the two ex-Soviet allies vowed closer military cooperation going forward.

The Ukrainian presidency meanwhile said that Russian attacks across Ukraine had left five people dead including three in the Donetsk region, where Bakhmut is located, and in the Kherson region.

The war has taken a significant toll on Ukraine's economy and the IMF said Monday it had approved an economic monitoring programme which could help Kyiv secure funding from donors, with the war-torn country needing more than $40 billion this year.

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