(Moscow and Sloviansk) The Russian army on Saturday claimed territorial gains on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the epicenter of fighting for months and where Moscow’s forces have slowly advanced until control most of it.

“Wagner’s assault units advanced successfully, capturing two blocks on the northern and southern outskirts of the city,” the Russian Defense Ministry said on Telegram, reporting the “heaviest fighting” on the front.

The paramilitary group Wagner, led by the sulphurous businessman Evguéni Prigojine, is on the front line in this battle, supported by artillery and army paratroopers.

According to the Russian ministry, Ukrainian troops are “retreating and deliberately destroying infrastructure and residential buildings in the city in order to slow the advance” of Russian forces.

“The [Russian] airborne troops hold the enemy back on the flanks and support the actions of the assault groups in capturing the city,” he added.

Russia said on Friday it was pushing into western Bakhmout to seize the last part of the largely destroyed city, still under the control of the Ukrainian army.

The day before, she had claimed to block Ukrainian forces in Bakhmout and prevent any reinforcements from entering there, suggesting that this city, where the bloodiest battle since the start of the Russian offensive has been taking place since last summer, was about to fall.

Kyiv has denied these claims, saying it continues to supply Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut and inflict “mad casualties” on the Russians.

AFP could not verify these statements from an independent source.

A ninth person was found dead on Saturday in the rubble of a building in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine, hit the day before by a Russian strike, the day Russia signed a law facilitating mobilization young people in the army.

“Unfortunately, during the night the death toll increased. Rescuers extricated the body of a woman from the rubble,” Vadim Lyakh, the head of the military administration of this Donbass city, wrote on Facebook. He said “five identified people” remained buried in the ruins, and that a total of 21 had been injured. A previous toll reported at least eight deaths.

A two-year-old child died shortly after being pulled out of the rubble, said Daria Zarivna, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Friday evening.

Sloviansk is in a part of the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, 45 kilometers northwest of Bakhmout.

According to Kyiv, it was targeted on Friday by seven missiles, which damaged five buildings, five houses, a school and an administrative building.

President Zelensky accused Moscow of “brutally bombing” residential buildings and “killing people in broad daylight”.

In a statement, the Donetsk regional prosecutor’s office said a preliminary investigation had been opened for violation of the laws and customs of war.

“According to preliminary information, the occupiers used an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system against the civilian population,” the text adds.

AFP reporters saw rescue workers searching for survivors on the top floor of a residential building and black smoke billowing from burning houses across the street.

“I live across the street and was sleeping when I heard this huge explosion,” Larisa, a 59-year-old resident, told AFP.