Trench-digging Ukrainian troops targeted by Russian strikes
Shovels in hand and helmets on heads, Ukrainian soldiers jumped out of a military truck and prepare to dig a trench near Bakhmut, in the conflict-hit east of the country.
The team leader gave instructions to the 30 or so diggers: "You have to dig from there to there," he said, pointing to a few dozen metres of green grass damp from the night's rain.
The chosen spot is between a small road and some woods, about six kilometres from the Russian frontline.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. These days, most of the fighting is in the east, for control of the industrial Donbass region, in particular the city of Bakhmut, which has been almost completely destroyed.
The group leader continues: "Half of you dig, half of you can smoke, and then you change over. You dig until 2.30 p.m. and then we get out of here," he said, mid-morning on Sunday.
"That's Bakhmut, that's the front," he adds, pointing to all sides.
The soldiers on the first digging duty put their rifles in the grass and, shovels in hand, lined up along the designated stretch of ground. The others stand slightly back.
But the trench-diggers didn't even have time to start before the shrill sound of a rocket ripped through the air, exploding less than 50 metres away.
Some soldiers dived to the ground, others ran to lie down at the edge of the adjacent wood.
Twenty or so explosions in a row followed, close by or more distant.
The detonations followed one another for about 20 seconds. Then silence returned.
A few soldiers stood up, but quickly fall back when two more explosions sounded.
- Observation drone -
When calm eventually returned, the team leader ordered the soldiers to run back towards the truck, parked about 50 metres away under cover of trees.
"Go, go!" he shouted, relieved that there were no casualties.
The soldiers ran to the vehicle, some with shovels still in hand.
Once they were all in the truck they sped off, away from the immediate danger.
"They were cluster munitions," Ruslan, a sergeant in the team, told AFP a few minutes later from a sheltered spot.
The Russians "may have seen our group. The projectiles fell just where many people had gathered," he said, adding that it was very likely that the diggers had been spotted by a Russian observation drone, despite the low, grey skies on Sunday.
"We weren't even digging in a dangerous place. Some days we have dug almost at ground zero (the front line), but there have been no such attacks," Ruslan said.
"With our numbers, we can dig a trench in two days. We have to do the job quickly," he added.
AFP journalists have in recent weeks seen soldiers digging trenches in the area around Bakhmut, where particularly deadly fighting has raged since last summer.
Russians from the paramilitary Wagner group and special forces from Moscow's army have advanced into the centre of the town.
The Ukrainians now hold only a small western part of the town, with the Russian authorities claiming to control about 90 percent of the city, which had a population of 70,000 before the conflict, but which has now been reduced to near ruins.