(Reuters) - The head of the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine's Donetsk region said on Wednesday that units of the Wagner contract militia were advancing in the town of Bakhmut and a senior Ukrainian official said fighting there and in a second town was growing fiercer.
"The enemy is increasing pressure on the Bakhmut and Vuhledar areas," Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Maliar, said on the Telegram messaging app.
Russia, she said, was throwing a significant number of personnel and equipment into battle despite heavy losses.
"The intensity of the fighting is increasing."
The area around Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of 70,000, has seen some of the most brutal fighting of the 11-month-old war. The town has symbolic importance for both Russia and Ukraine, though Western military analysts say it has little strategic significance.
Denis Pushilin, the Russian-imposed head of Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk province, proclaimed annexed by Moscow last September, said fighting was taking place in previously Ukrainian-held neighbourhoods of Bakhmut.
"Units, in particular Wagner, are advancing in Artyomovsk itself," TASS news agency quoted him as saying, using the Russian name for the town.
"Fighting is already taking place in the outskirts and in neighbourhoods that until very recently were held by the enemy."
Russia said earlier this month it had captured Soledar, to the northeast, and Klishchiivka, just south of Bakhmut, in advances for which the Wagner group claimed credit. Pushilin was seen visiting Soledar in an online video posted earlier this week.
RIA news agency quoted Pushilin as saying that taking Soledar had made it possible to block Ukrainian supply routes and control some areas from which Ukrainian forces had been launching "retaliatory action".
Ukraine's Maliar said that in the overall eastern industrial region known as the Donbas, Ukraine had superior and more committed soldiers, while Russia had an advantage in terms of the number of fighters and weapons.
"The path to our victory is difficult," Maliar said.
(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Grant McCool)