Intense fighting continued over the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the site of the longest and bloodiest battle since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“Assault detachments (of the Russian paramilitary group) Wagner are attacking from several locations and are trying to break through the defenses of our troops and advance to the central districts,” Oleksandr Syrsky, a Ukrainian ground forces commander in Bakhmut, said on Monday.

“The closer we are to the city center, the fiercer the fighting and the more artillery there is,” echoed Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary group.

On Sunday, he also described the situation in the city as “difficult, very difficult, with the enemy fighting for every meter.”

The city, which had a population of around 70,000 before the war, has been the epicenter of fighting on the Eastern Front for months, although its strategic importance is disputed by experts.

60 day extension of grain export deal

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Verchinin said after talks in Geneva that Moscow “is not against a further extension” of the Ukrainian grain deal reached last July between the United Nations, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.

“But only for 60 days,” he said, stressing that “our future position will be determined by tangible progress in the normalization of our agricultural exports, not in words but in action.”

The United Nations and Turkey brokered the deal between the warring nations that allows Ukraine – one of the world’s most important breadbaskets – to ship food and fertilizer from three of its Black Sea ports.

The 120-day agreement was renewed last November. That extension expires Saturday, and another 120-day extension was on the table.

“The UN Secretary-General has confirmed that the UN will make every effort to preserve the integrity of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and ensure its continuity,” a UN statement said.

Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where millions do not have enough to eat. Russia was also the world’s leading fertilizer exporter before the war.

The loss of these supplies pushed global food prices higher and fueled fears of a hunger crisis.

Fighter aircraft for Ukraine

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Monday that she was open to discussions about giving Ukraine F-18 fighter jets.

The Ukrainian military has asked for the F-16, the most available American-made aircraft, which is increasingly being replaced by newer models.

And in December, Finland announced that it would order 64 F-35As from US manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

“Ukraine needs even heavier equipment … the next big issue is fighter jets and air defense, more generally,” Marin said.

“We have the new F-35s coming in… When these old Hornets are scrapped, we can discuss their future use.”

However, the F-35s will not arrive until 2025.