Volunteer Ivan, 36, cooks for people at a humanitarian centre in Bakhmut on February 3, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

BAKHMUT, Ukraine: Heavy fighting was underway Sunday in the northern parts of the frontline hotspot Bakhmut, while Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv wounded five people.

Despite the flow of Western weapons to Ukraine, Russia has in recent days claimed gains around war-ravaged Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk.

However, the head of Russia’s Wagner said on Sunday that the Ukrainian army was not retreating and that fighting raged on in northern parts of Bakhmut.

“In the northern quarters of Artemovsk, fierce battles are going on for every street, every house, every stairwell,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a statement, referring to Bakhmut by its old name.

“The Ukrainian armed forces are fighting to the last,” he said.

Russian forces have been trying to seize control of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk for months in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle since Russia launche attacks on Ukraine last February.

‘I came to pray for peace’

The fight for Bakhmut has turned the town with a pre-war population of roughly 75,000 into a ghost town dotted with hedgehog anti-tank defences and burnt-out cars. The town has no water, gas or electricity.

About 20 people, including two soldiers, attended a Sunday mass in the basement of the golden-domed All Saints’ church in the deserted town.

Three women sang hymns, punctuated by sounds of mortar shells in the background.

The room was lit by two dozen candles and a portable light used by the two priests to read from the sacred book.

“Today I prayed that everything will be better for me after I die,” said 20-year-old Serafim Chernyshov standing outside the church, with loud sounds of a steady exchange of small arms fire and the pounding of mortar shells to and from Russian positions echoing in the background.

“Last night, a missile flew into my garden and a bullet flew inside my house, it could have hit me,” he added. “I might die now or in 30 years. If I’m killed, it will be God’s will.”

“I came to pray for peace,” added Lyubov Avramenko, 84.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Kyiv’s troops would fight for Bakhmut “as long as we can.”

He urged the West to supply Kyiv with sophisticated weapons to help his forces retain control of Bakhmut and speed up deliveries of heavy tanks.