Russian forces have pounded the city of Bakhmut, the months-old focal point of their attempts to capture the eastern Ukrainian industrial region of Donbas.

The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, in a report on Facebook, said fighting gripped Bakhmut and nearby areas. It said Russian forces had failed to advance on two villages to the northwest. At least a dozen localities came under Russian fire.

Separately, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern group of forces, told national television on Wednesday that in the past 24 hours, Russian forces had attacked 324 times using artillery and multiple rocket launchers.

“The Russians are destroying buildings in Bakhmut to prevent our soldiers from using them as fortifications,” he said. He added on Tuesday said there had been a record number of attacks on a section of the front farther north – near the city of Kupiansk, in northeastern Ukraine.

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force said Ukrainian troops were pouring in ahead of an “inevitable” counter-offensive.

The governor of the southern Ukrainian region of Mykolaiv said Russian missiles had also hit an apartment building and a private house in the city of the same name. One person was killed and 15 were injured, Vitaliy Kim wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Elsewhere, the US and European Union have welcomed news of a call between China’s president, Xi Jinping, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Mr Xi spoke to Mr Zelenskiy, on Wednesday for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kyiv had publicly sought such talks for months.

Mr Zelenskiy described the hour’s phone call as “long and meaningful”. Mr Xi told Zelenskiy that China would send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties seeking peace, Chinese state media reported.

“It is an important, long overdue first step by China in exercising its responsibilities as a member of the UN security council,” said a European Commission spokesman.

The White House welcomed the phone call but said it was too soon to tell whether it would lead to a peace deal.

Russia’s envoy to the UN in Geneva said no real progress had been achieved in resolving issues raised by Moscow over the Black Sea grain deal, which is due to expire next month. – Guardian