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By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) -The eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut endured heavy artillery fire on Monday as the NATO chief backed reports from local officials that a major new Russian offensive had begun, days before the first anniversary of Moscow's invasion.
Ukrainian defenders, who have already held out for months, were braced for new ground attacks, Ukrainian military officials said.
Positions in Bakhmut have been fortified and only people with a military role were being allowed in, a deputy battalion commander said. Any civilians who still wanted to leave the city would have to brave the incoming fire, he said.
Bakhmut is a prime objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and its capture would give Russia a new foothold in the Donetsk region and a rare victory after several months of setbacks. The Donetsk and Luhansk regions make up the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland, now partially occupied by Russia which wants full control.
"... The reality is we have seen the start (of a Russian offensive) already because we see now what Russia does now - President Putin does now - is to send thousands and thousands more troops, accepting a very high rate of casualty," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
The Russian assault on Bakhmut has been spearheaded by mercenaries of the Wagner group, who have made small but steady gains. The renewed Russian bombardments made the situation there even more acute.
"The city, the city's suburbs, the entire perimeter, and essentially the entire Bakhmut direction and Kostyantynivka are under crazy, chaotic shelling," said Volodymyr Nazarenko, deputy commander of Ukraine's Svoboda battalion.
Nazarenko said that, although no fighting was taking place in the city centre, the defenders were prepared to meet any assault.
"The city is a fortress, every position and every street there, almost every building, is a fortress," he said.
The Russian defence ministry said its troops had pushed forward a few kilometres along the frontlines, without specifying where.
The Ukrainian military reported Russian shelling all along the frontline and said 16 settlements had been bombarded near Bakhmut. It said that over the past day, its forces had repelled attacks near Bakhmut as well as assaults in the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions.
NATO TO DISCUSS FURTHER AID
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai and the Ukrainian governor of Donetsk have recently said that a predicted Russian offensive had begun. Haidai said Russian forces had attacked Bilogorivka from all sides before dawn on Monday.
He said on Monday: "Preparations for this offensive are already under way, the amount of shelling, air strikes and attacks by small groups has already increased. We are waiting for them to start massive round-the-clock attacks." Haidai
Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.
The United Nations' human rights office said on Monday that it had recorded 7,199 civilian deaths and 11,756 wounded since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion, mostly from shelling and missile and air strikes. However, it believed the actual figure was far higher.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, in what it calls a "special military operation" to "denazify" the country and protect Russian speakers. Western leaders say it was nothing more than a land grab.
The president of Moldova accused Russia on Monday of planning to use foreign saboteurs to bring down her leadership and use it in the war against Ukraine. Moldova's breakaway region Transdniestria has survived for three decades with support from Moscow.
President Maia Sandu made her comments after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last week his country had uncovered a Russian intelligence plan "for the destruction of Moldova." Days later the government of the country, bordering Ukraine and Romania, resigned.
Putin's forces failed early in the invasion to capture the Ukrainian capital, using neighbouring Belarus as a staging post, and the conflict has since become a war of attrition that has left whole cities in ruins.
With Ukraine desperate for more weapons, defence ministers from several NATO countries allied to Kyiv will meet in Germany on Tuesday to discuss possible further military aid.
Ukraine says it needs fighter jets and long-range missiles to counter the offensive and recapture lost territory.
NATO's Stoltenberg said he expected the issue of aircraft to be discussed, but that Ukraine needed support on the ground now.
A NATO source said it would increase targets for the stockpiling of ammunition as Kyiv was burning through shells much faster than Western countries can produce.
"The current rate of Ukraine's ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production," Stoltenberg told reporters.
Even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many NATO countries fell short of meeting the alliance's munitions stockpiling targets, as officials considered wars of attrition with large-scale artillery a thing of the past.
But the pace of deliveries to Ukraine, where Kyiv's troops are firing up to 10,000 artillery shells daily, has drained Western inventories.
A European diplomat told Reuters: "If Europe were to fight Russia, some countries would run out of ammunition in days."
(Reporting by Max Hunder, Olena Harmash, Tim Heritage, Pavel Polityuk, Bart H. Meijer and Charlotte Van Campenhout; Writing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Macfie; Editing by Sharon Singleton, Alison Williams, Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman)