Ukraine: Heavy fighting continues over Soledar near stronghold Bakhmut

Ukraine's deputy defense minister says a fierce battle is continuing near the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk.

Hanna Maliar briefed reporters on the status of fighting over the town of Soledar on Thursday. She said Ukrainian soldiers are fighting desperately despite the difficult situation.

Leaders of a local pro-Russian group claimed on Wednesday that they had captured Soledar.

The Institute for the Study of War, a US think tank, reported on Wednesday that "Russian forces have not yet fully captured Soledar despite recent Russian advances." It added that "the possible capture of Soledar is unlikely to enable Russian forces to capture Bakhmut."

Meanwhile, Russia sent its ground force chief, Oleg Salyukov, to its neighboring ally Belarus on Thursday. The defense ministries of the two countries say he inspected their joint troop unit in Belarus.

Russia and Belarus said on Sunday that their air forces will hold joint drills from January 16 through February 1. This is fueling fears that Russia may launch attacks from Belarus, which also borders Ukraine.

Salyukov is one of the three officers named as deputies for Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who was recently appointed to oversee what Moscow calls a special military operation in Ukraine.

Analysts say Russia hopes the personnel reshuffle will improve its military's command and control in preparation for large-scale offensives.