Ukraine claims Bakhmut gains after uptick in fighting

Ukraine said on Friday it had retaken swathes of ground near the frontline city of Bakhmut, as Russia insisted it had repelled an attack along a broad stretch of the front line.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, who is spearheading Moscow's attack on Bakhmut, accused the Russian army of "fleeing" from around the eastern Ukraine city.

The conflicting reports from the battlefront indicate an increase in fighting after months of relative stability, as expectations grow over Kyiv's spring offensive.

Moscow also denounced as "extremely hostile" a British decision to send long-range missiles to Ukraine.

The question of when and where Ukraine might launch its high stakes fightback has been the subject of steady speculation, even as President Volodymr Zelensky insisted earlier this week that his army needed more time to prepare.

The fresh fighting came as China said it would send a special envoy to Europe next week, as Beijing pursues efforts to cast itself as peacemaker.

China plans to send high-ranking diplomat Li Hui to Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia to "communicate with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis".

From Ukraine to the Middle East, Beijing in recent months has sought to position itself as a mediator with a leading role in solving the world's crises.

But while China presents itself as a neutral party on the Ukraine war, it has been criticised in the West for refusing to condemn Moscow for the invasion.

Zelensky is expected in Rome on Saturday for talks with political leaders and possibly Pope Francis, his first visit to Italy since Russia's invasion.

On the battlefield, Ukraine said its forces had advanced two kilometres (around...

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