By Mike Collett-White
NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine (Reuters) – From a mortar position behind a ridge behind which Ukrainian and Russian troops face each other outside the hotly contested town of Bakhmut, a crew adjusted their guns before firing seven shots.
The impact of each was heard in the distance seconds later, while the steady bang of outgoing and incoming artillery fire filled the air on Thursday in a war of attrition that has defined the region in recent months.
The crackle of small arms fire was also clearly heard about 1.5 to 2.0 km from the front line, not far from a road leading west from Bakhmut to the nearest town of Chasiv Yar – a key escape route for Ukrainian forces at risk are to be circled.
“The situation (on the front line) is quite difficult but stable,” said Myron, a soldier with the 80th Air Assault Brigade, who declined to give his full name.
“The enemy is constantly trying to attack us and we’re defending our positions quite effectively,” the 37-year-old told Reuters in an underground bunker at the end of a zigzag trench where the mortar unit sleeps, eats and keeps warm.
“We have been standing here for a long time and our brigade has not given up any position.”
Since a major Ukrainian counter-offensive last year, the war has escalated into a grueling conflict of increasing gains along a front line stretching from the Russian border in the north to the annexed Crimea peninsula in the south.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and wounded on both sides, and while Russia appears to be advancing in key areas including Bakhmut, progress is slow and costly, and Kiev says it is determined to persevere.
Ukraine is urging its western allies to supply more modern military equipment and ammunition — an integral part of what has become a bitter artillery duel.
Reuters reporters heard dozens of shells being fired from Ukrainian positions near Khasiv Yar and Bakhmut on Thursday alone.
The story goes on
Ihor, a 36-year-old soldier in the mortar position, said they were the target of airstrikes, mortar fire and tank fire.
“You don’t always pay attention to what’s flying over your head,” he added, crouching in a deep ditch.
In the neighboring town of Chasiv Yar, a volunteer evacuation team was driving a minibus through potholed alleys between small houses, many of which lay in ruins, as artillery shelling shook the ground.
Dozens of mostly elderly residents still live there, and about 20 gathered at a water tanker to fill containers to take home.
A woman who had been arranged to be taken from the increasingly dangerous city refused to leave when volunteers came to pick her up, saying she was not ready. On the side of the next street, a man lit a fire to make shish kebabs while a woman sat and talked nearby.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Andrew Heavens)