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The Ukrainian military and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy say claims by Russia’s Vagner group that Russian forces have taken the eastern town of Soledar are false and continues fighting.

“The terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that part of our town of Soledar…is some sort of a Russian possession,” Zelenskiy said in a video address on January 11.

“But fighting continues. The Donetsk theater of operations is holding.”

In a separate statement, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces also said fighting continues. The statement said in order to bring the entire Donetsk region under its control, the Russian military is attempting both to attack nearby Bakhmut and to disrupt supply routes to Soledar.

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The General Staff said earlier the Russians were suffering heavy losses as they tried to take the salt-mining town.

The head of the mercenary Vagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said on January 11 his forces had taken control of the Soledar.

“I want to confirm the complete liberation and cleansing of the territory of Soledar from units of the Ukrainian Army…. Ukrainian units that did not want to surrender were destroyed,” he said in a statement.

Vagner forces “killed about 500 people,” he said, adding that Soledar is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine had earlier denied claims by the private Russian military group that it had taken control of the town.

“The town is not under the control of the Russian Federation. There are fierce battles going on now,” Serhiy Cherevatiy, the spokesman for the eastern military command, said on Ukrainian television.

“There is a complicated situation there…. The intensity of battles near Bakhmut can be compared with World War II,” he added.

The Russian Defense Ministry noted that paratroopers had blocked areas north and south of Soledar, but added that fighting was ongoing inside the town.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was a “positive dynamic in advances,” but quickly added that officials shouldn’t “rush” to declare victory.

The Ukrainian General Staff claimed on January 11 that Russia had lost around 490 soldiers the previous day. It said those casualties raised its estimated death toll on the Russian side to nearly 113,000 troops.

Each side in the conflict has classified its casualty figures, and RFE/RL cannot corroborate accounts by either side of battlefield developments in the areas of the heaviest fighting.

Capturing Soledar and its salt mines would have symbolic, military, and commercial value for Russia and would be Moscow’s most substantial gain in months.

Salt Of The Earth: Deep Inside Eastern Ukraine's Massive Soledar Mines

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Salt Of The Earth: Deep Inside Eastern Ukraine’s Massive Soledar Mines

Russian forces in Ukraine are trying to capture the eastern salt-mining town of Soledar in a sustained offensive that Kyiv’s Defense Ministry has described as “maniacal.” In 2019, RFE/RL’s Amos Chapple visited Soledar as the salt-mining operation was hoping to crack Western markets.

As the battle for Soledar raged, Russia announced on January 11 that it has again replaced the commander of its forces in Ukraine.

Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov was appointed to oversee the invasion in a reshuffle announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Gerasimov replaces Sergei Surovikinwho will become one Gerasimov’s three deputies, the ministry said.

The Ukrainian General Staff said early on January 11 that its troops had fought off Russian attacks in three eastern regions.

It also reminded Ukrainians across the country to be alert for possible long-distance air strikes, although the pace of such Russian bombing of civilian and infrastructure targets has eased since the massive bombardments at the end of December and early January.

The British Defense Ministry’s daily intelligence assessment on January 11 noted the announcement of a joint Russian-Belarusian tactical flight exercise in the second half of January.

Addressing persistent fears of a spread of the 10-month-old full-scale conflict, the British Defense Ministry speculated that a new deployment of Russian aircraft to Ukraine’s northern neighbor Belarus “is likely a genuine exercise, rather than a preparation for any additional offensive operations against Ukraine.”

Russia’s invasion was partly staged in Moscow-allied Belarus, although leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has sought to downplay his regime’s role in the conflict.

The commander of Kyiv’s defenses, Lieutenant General Oleksiy Pavlyuk, said on January 10 that Ukraine’s military had strengthened its defensive positions north of the city and was girding for a potential offensive from across the nearby Belarusian border.

Amid the fierce fighting in the eastern Donetsk region, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made a surprise visit to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on January 10, promising to send more weapons less than a week after Berlin pledged to send infantry fighting vehicles that Ukraine had been asking for.

baerbock pledged further support before leaving Kharkiv, which was hit by Russian shelling after she left.

“The occupiers are striking again,” Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synehubov said on Telegram, telling residents to stay in shelters.

Baerbock stressed that Ukrainians “should know they can rely on our solidarity and support,” adding that Germany will keep supplying weapons “that Ukraine needs in order to free its citizens who are still suffering under the terror of Russian occupation.”

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