Ukraine has pledged to hold positions in the frontline city of Bakhmut

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine pledged on Monday to bolster its defences in frontline Bakhmut, after reports that Kyiv was withdrawing from the city that’s become a symbolic prize in the war.

The eastern Ukrainian city has been virtually flattened in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle since Russia’s more than year-long invasion.

Ukraine has reported an increasingly difficult situation around Bakhmut in recent days and some analysts said its forces may have initiated a strategic retreat.

But President Volodymyr Zelensky met with top commanders Monday and his office said they were in favour of “continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.”

Neither side has said how many troops they have lost in the battle, with observers saying both Moscow and Kyiv are trying to exhaust each other.

Russia has appeared determined to take Bakhmut at all costs, despite analysts saying the city has little strategic value.

The Ukrainian army said Sunday that its troops had fought off “more than 130” Russian attacks in a single day around Bakhmut and said Moscow’s forces were trying to encircle the city.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War has said Ukrainian forces may have initiated a strategic retreat from the city.

“Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal in Bakhmut, although it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city,” it said in a recent analytical note.

As the fight rages, the head of Russia’s mercenary group Wagner that is spearheading the Bakhmut battle, has complained his forces there lack ammunition.

Yevgeny Prigozhin alleged late Sunday that Russian reservists meant to deploy to Bakhmut had been diverted and that ammunition promised by the military was days late in arriving.

“We are trying to understand what the reasons are – the usual bureaucracy or betrayal,” Prigozhin said on social media.

Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked businessman, has seen his influence grow hugely during Moscow’s offensive and has regularly competed with the Russian army.

Ukraine also faced new air attacks, with the air force saying that it had shot down 13 explosive drones launched from southern Russia overnight.

The air force said on Telegram that Russian forces had launched 15 Iran-made Shahed drones, 13 of which Ukrainian forces shot down.

- Russian defence minister in Mariupol -

South of the fighting hotspot, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Mariupol, the port city that Moscow captured after a long siege last Spring.

Shoigu is one of the highest-ranking Russian officials to visit east Ukraine.

He toured the destroyed city to oversee reconstruction efforts.

Mariupol, on the Azov Sea, fell to the Russian army last May and has since been largely cut off from the outside scrutiny.

In Moscow, Russia’s FSB security service claimed it had thwarted an attempt to assassinate a controversial pro-Kremlin tycoon, Konstantin Malofeyev.

The FSB blamed a Russian-founded sabotage group that last week penetrated the country’s borders from Ukraine.

It allegged that assassination was an “act of terror” that resembled that of the killing last August of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a far-right thinker and Kremlin supporter.