MOSCOW: Russia’s private army Wagner claimed on Saturday the total control of the east Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the epicentre of fighting, as Kyiv said the battle was continuing but admitted the situation was ‘critical’.

Bakhmut, a salt mining town that once had a population of 70,000 people, has been the scene of the longest and bloodiest battle in Moscow’s more than year-long Ukraine offensive.

The fall to Russia of Bakhmut, where both Moscow and Kyiv are believed to have suffered huge losses, would have high symbolic value.

If confirmed, Bakhmut’s loss would allow Moscow to bring home a victory after a series of humiliating defeats.

It would also come before a major counteroffensive that Kyiv has been preparing for months.

The announcement by Wagner came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took part in the G7 summit in Japan. In a video posted on Telegram, in which fighters held Russian flags on the backdrop of ruins, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed the city had fallen to his mercenaries.

“Today on May 20, around midday, Bakhmut was taken in its entirety,” Prigozhin said in the video, adding that Wagner fighters would search the captured city before handing it over to the official Russian army.

“By May 25 we will completely examine (Bakhmut), create the necessary lines of defence and hand it to the military,” Prigozhin said. “We ourselves will go into field camps.”

Artillery sound could be heard in the background of the video.

Ukraine, which earlier this month claimed successes in and around Bakhmut, said the fighting for the city was still on. “Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical,” deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar posted on Telegram. She said Ukrainian troops were “holding the defence” in the city’s “Airplane area”. “As of now, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area,” she said.

It was not possible for AFP to verify either claims.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2023

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