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Residents were reportedly fleeing on foot from the devastated eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut as Russian forces shelled the area and the last remaining escape routes, with Kyiv saying the situation was “critical” for Ukrainian defenders even as they continued to repel multiple attacks in the region.

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Ukrainian troops told AP on March 4 that a woman was killed and two men were severely injured by Russian shelling as they were attempting to cross a makeshift bridge out of Bakhmut a day after the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said the city was nearly surrounded.

AP quoted an unnamed Ukrainian Army representative as saying it was now too dangerous for civilians to depart Bakhmut by vehicle because of Russian shelling and that most were forced to flee on foot.

Western military experts said the situation in Bakhmut remains critical and the Ukrainian defenders are coming under “increasingly severe pressure” in and around the city, which had a prewar population of about 70,000.

In the eastern region of Donetsk, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its daily bulletin that the Ukrainian military had repelled more than 150 attacks by Russian troops over the past day in the areas of Bakhmut, Lyman, Avdiyivka, and Shakhtarsk.

“The enemy is ceaselessly attempting to encircle Bakhmut,” the General Staff said, adding that numerous attacks aimed at surrounding Bakhmut were repelled by Ukrainian fighters in the adjacent areas of Vasyukivka, Dubovo-Vasylivka, and Ivanivske.

Battlefield reports from either side could not immediately be verified.

Ukrainian officials have suggested that their troops might have to pull out of Bakhmut entirely once the defense of the city becomes too costly and withdraw to new positions in the west and northwest, where Ukrainians are reported to have far stronger defensive positions.

Despite the situation described by a Ukrainian commander as “critical,” Kyiv’s defenders were reportedly digging in at defensive sites and were not yet ready to give up the town.

“All units involved in the defense of Bakhmut clearly perform their tasks. Our soldiers are constantly working in extremely harsh conditions and doing everything to ensure that the number of enemy forces is reduced every day,” General Viktor Khorenko, the commander of the Special Operations Forces, wrote on Facebook.

On March 3, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked businessman and founder of Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group, claimed in a video that Bakhmut — which Moscow has been unsuccessfully trying to conquer for the past seven months — is nearly surrounded, with only one final escape route remaining open.

The British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is “under increasingly severe pressure, with intense fighting taking place in and around the city.”

British intelligence said in its report that regular Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries had made further advances into the northern suburbs of the city, which is now vulnerable to Russian attacks on three sides.

“Ukraine is reinforcing the area with elite units, and within the last 36 hours two key bridges in Bakhmut have been destroyed, including a vital bridge connecting the city to the last main supply route from Bakhmut to the city of Chasiv Yar,” the report said.

Western experts have questioned the Russian push for Bakhmut, saying it has less strategic and more symbolic value for the Kremlin.

In the northeast Kharkiv region, Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, ordered a partial evacuation of the liberated city of Kupyansk because of constant and intensive Russian shelling.

The Russian Defense Ministry on March 4 said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited near the front lines, stopping at a command post of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. The ministry did not disclose Shoigu’s specific location.

Amid consistent battlefield setbacks over the past several months, Shoigu has come under increasing pressure from pro-war advocates inside Russia for the military’s performance, including from Wagner chief Prigozhin.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

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