Missiles hammer Ukraine as Russia eyes Bakhmut's capture by April
- Ukraine says it shoots down 16 of 36 Russian missiles
- Wagner group sees flashpoint city Bakhmut falling by April
- Russian bodies 'piled up' there, says Ukrainian defender
- NATO to keep ramping up military aid for Kyiv
KYIV, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Russia rained missiles across Ukraine on Thursday and struck its largest oil refinery, Kyiv said, while the head of the Wagner mercenary group predicted the long-besieged city of Bakhmut would take weeks if not months to fall.
Following a pattern of heavy bombardments after Ukrainian battlefield or diplomatic gains, Russia launched 36 missiles in the early hours, Ukraine's Air Force said.
NATO alliance officials had on the previous day discussed plans for more military hardware for Kyiv, and Britain and Poland agreed after their leaders met on Thursday that support should be stepped up in coming weeks.
The Russian missiles triggered air-raid sirens and landed across Ukraine, including at the Kremenchuk refinery, where the extent of damage was unclear. About 16 were shot down, the Air Force added, a lower rate than normal.
Ukraine said the barrage included three KH-31 missiles and one Oniks anti-ship cruise missile, which its air defences cannot shoot down.
Its general staff, in its evening report, said Russia had also shelled more than two dozen eastern and southern settlements.
There was no word from Moscow on the missile strikes or shelling, and Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield reports.
Police in Moldova, where parliament on Thursday approved a new pro-Western government, said they again found missile debris near the border with Ukraine.
Meanwhile Belarus, which allowed Russia to use its territory to send troops into Ukraine at the start of the war, said it would only fight alongside its ally if it was attacked.
Bolstered by tens of thousands of reservists, Russia has intensified ground attacks across southern and eastern Ukraine, and, as the first anniversary of its Feb. 24 invasion nears, a major new offensive appears to be shaping.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, pulverised Ukrainian cities, destabilised the global economy and displaced millions.
Germany said 1.1 million people arrived from Ukraine in 2022 alone, exceeding its unprecedented migrant influx of 2015-16.
'THEIR BODIES ARE JUST PILED UP'
Russia's current focus is on the small city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, one of two regions making up the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland now partially occupied by Russia.
In battles led by the Wagner group swelled by prison recruits, Russia has for months been pounding and encircling Bakhmut. Most of its pre-war population of about 70,000 people have left, leaving Ukrainian soldiers dug in.
"They (the Russians) are sending a lot of troops. I don't think that is sustainable for them to keep attacking this way," said the Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade's press officer, Taras Dzioba.
"There are places where their bodies are just piled up. There is a trench where... they just don't evacuate their wounded or killed."
Dzioba spoke to Reuters as he stood near a Howitzer battery outside a defensive bunker close to the Bakhmut front lines.
Its capture would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger Donetsk cities further west, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. But Ukraine and allies say seizing Bakhmut would be a pyrrhic victory given the months it has taken and the losses they say Russia has sustained.
In an interview with a pro-war military blogger, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin forecast Bakhmut would fall by April, depending on how many men Ukraine threw into the fight and how well his men were supplied.
"Because there are a huge number of problems that need to be solved. Naturally it will also depend on whether we continue to be bled," he added, referring to the end of prisoner recruits.
The two sides said they exchanged 101 prisoners of war, with most Ukrainian returnees having been defenders of Mariupol before the besieged southern city fell to Russian forces in May, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's chief of staff said.
Ukraine's general staff said Russia was mobilising homeless people and drug addicts in the city. Reuters could not verify that assertion.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskiy said his priority was to hold off Russian attacks, brace for their escalation and get ready for an eventual Ukrainian counter-offensive.
"Holding the situation at the front and preparing for any enemy steps of escalation -- that is the priority for the near future," he said.
As Ukraine burns through munitions fast and clamours for heavier firepower, including tanks and fighter jets, NATO members are ramping up production and promised more during meetings in Brussels this week.
Zelenskiy's army has already received vast amounts of aid. The United States alone has committed $27.4 billion since the conflict began.
Senior U.S. officials have advised Ukraine to hold off with an intended counter-offensive until the latest supply of U.S. weaponry is in place and training has been provided.
Russia calls the invasion a "special military operation" against security threats and has cast deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine as proof that the West is escalating the war.
Kyiv and its allies call Russia's actions a land grab.
In Brussels, diplomats said European Union countries were "on good track" to adopt a 10th package of economic sanctions against Moscow in time for the invasion's anniversary.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen travelled to Ukraine, the first such visit during the war from Israel, which coordinates with Russia over strikes on suspected Iranian targets in Syria and has stopped short of pledging arms to Kyiv.
On Twitter, Cohen said Israel would increase the aid it gives Ukraine and would help it rebuild.
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