Mortars, artillery and small arms fire as battle for Bakhmut rages
NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine, March 16 (Reuters) - From a mortar position behind a ridge beyond which frontline Ukrainian and Russian troops face off outside the hotly contested city of Bakhmut, a crew adjusted its weapons before firing off seven rounds.
The impact of each could be heard in the distance seconds later, while the constant boom of outgoing and incoming artillery fire filled the air on Thursday in attritional warfare that has marked the last several months in the area.
The crackle of small arms fire was also clearly audible some 1.5-2.0 km from the frontlines, not far from a road that leads from Bakhmut west into the next town Chasiv Yar - a vital exit route for Ukrainian forces who are in danger of being encircled.
"The situation (at the front) is quite difficult, but stable," said Myron, a soldier in the 80th Air Assault Brigade who declined to give his full name.
"The enemy constantly attempts to attack us, and we defend our positions quite effectively," the 37-year-old told Reuters in an underground bunker at the end of a zig-zag trench where the mortar unit sleeps, eats and stays warm.
"We've been standing here for quite a long time already, and our brigade hasn't given up any positions."
Since a major Ukrainian counter-offensive last year, the war has settled into a grinding conflict of incremental gains along a frontline stretching from the Russian border in the north to the annexed Crimean 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 in the ascendancy in key areas including Bakhmut, progress is slow and costly and Kyiv says it is determined to hold out.
Ukraine is urging its allies in the West to supply more modern military hardware and ammunition - a vital ingredient in what has become a fierce artillery duel.
Reuters reporters heard dozens of shells being fired from Ukrainian positions near Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut on Thursday alone.
Ihor, a 36-year-old soldier at the mortar position, said they had been targeted by air strikes, mortar fire and tank shelling.
"You don't always check on what's flying over your head," he added, crouching in a deep trench.
In the next door town of Chasiv Yar, a volunteer evacuation team drove a minibus through potholed lanes between small homes, many of them in ruins as artillery shelling shook the ground.
Dozens of mainly elderly residents are still living there, and about 20 gathered at a water tanker to fill up containers to take home.
One woman who had arranged to be taken out of the increasingly dangerous town refused to leave when volunteers came to collect her, saying she was not ready. On the side of the next street a man prepared a fire to make shashlik while a woman sat nearby chatting.
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