Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) -
Fierce fighting was raging Monday for control of the centre of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the bloodiest battle of Moscow's invasion, as Russia agreed to a short extension of a crucial UN-backed grain export deal.
Ukraine said that Russia's Wagner mercenary group -- which has claimed to be leading Moscow's charge for Bakhmut -- was pushing forward in the industrial city that has been the epicentre of fighting for months.
'Wagner assault units are advancing from several directions,' the Ukrainian military said in a morning briefing.
'In fierce battles, our defenders are inflicting significant losses on the enemy.'
Analysts are divided over the strategic significance of Bakhmut as a military prize but the city has gained important political stature, with both sides pouring significant resources into the fight.
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged that his forces were coming up against determined resistance as they sought to wrest control of the city's centre in a 'very difficult' situation.
'The enemy is battling for every metre,' Prigozhin said on social media.
The capture of the city would provide the Kremlin with a military win to sell to its domestic audience.
Kyiv has also cautioned that Bakhmut's fall would give Russian forces a clear path deeper into the Donetsk region, which the Kremlin claimed to have annexed to Russia last year.
Bakhmut officials said Monday there were still more than 4,000 people living in the city, including 33 children.
NATO warned last week that Bakhmut could fall within a matter of days.
- Key export deal extended -
In Geneva, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin agreed to extend a key deal to allow the safe passage of exports of critical grain supplies -- but only for half the length of the original deal.
In meetings with the UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, among others, Vershinin agreed a 60-day extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has helped soothe the global food crunch triggered by the conflict.
Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 saw Ukraine's Black Sea ports blocked by warships, until the agreement, signed in July, allowed for the safe passage of exports of grain supplies.
The initial 120-day agreement struck with the UN and Turkey was extended for a further 120 days in November, until March 18.
But Moscow only agreed to a shorter extension of the deal Monday, saying it needed to see 'tangible progress' on a parallel agreement on unhindered Russian food and fertiliser exports.
Meanwhile, the presidents of Iran and Belarus -- two countries at odds with Western powers over Russia's war in Ukraine -- hailed their close ties during talks in Tehran Monday.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Tehran also maintains close ties with Russia even as it has stressed a neutral diplomatic stance in the Ukraine war.
- 'Surge' in arms demand -
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday published a decree posthumously awarding the highest state honour to a soldier killed by Russians after being taken prisoner near Bakhmut.
The soldier, Oleksandr Matsievsky, was videoed apparently being gunned down by Russian forces for saying 'Glory to Ukraine', in a video that went viral.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- now more than a year old -- has seen arms imports into Europe almost double in 2022, driven by massive shipments to Kyiv, which has become the world's third-largest arms destination, researchers said Monday.
'The invasion has really caused a significant surge in demand for arms in Europe, which will have further effect and most likely will lead to increased arms imports by European states,' Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told AFP.
Finland's prime minister said Monday that she was open to discussing giving fighter jets to Ukraine, despite facing criticism at home.
Kyiv has called for fighter jets, specifically American-made F-16s, arguing they would be crucial to defending against Russian missile strikes and drone attacks.
Russia's attack has had 'devastating' consequences for children in residential institutions, with thousands transferred to occupied territories or to Russia, Human Rights Watch also said Monday.
'This brutal war has starkly shown the need to end the perils faced by children who were institutionalised,' said Bill Van Esveld, associate children's rights director at the New York-based organisation.
At least several thousand children have been transferred to Russia or occupied territories, the report said.