(Reuters) -Russia claimed on Saturday to have fully captured the smashed eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which if true would mark an end to the longest and bloodiest battle of the 15-month war.
The assault on the largely levelled city was led by troops from the Wagner Group of mercenaries, whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said earlier in the day that his troops had finally pushed the Ukrainians out of the last built-up area inside the city.
Kyiv denied Prigozhin’s claim. Taking Bakhmut – which Russia refers to by its Soviet-era name of Artyomovsk – would represent Moscow’s first big victory in the conflict in more than 10 months.
“As a result of offensive actions by Wagner assault units, supported by artillery and aviation of the Southern Group of Forces, the liberation of Artyomovsk has been completed,” the Russian defence ministry said in a one-line statement.
There was no immediate reaction from Kyiv to the claim, which comes after a week in which Ukrainian forces have made their most rapid gains for six months on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks.
Prigozhin, who has repeatedly denounced Russia’s regular military for abandoning ground captured earlier by his men, said his own forces would now pull out of Bakhmut in five days to rest, handing the ruins over to the regular military.
“Today, at 12 noon, Bakhmut was completely taken,” Prigozhin said in a video in which he appeared in combat fatigues in front of a line of fighters holding Russian flags and Wagner banners. “We completely took the whole city, from house to house.”
Ukrainian military spokesperson Serhiy Cherevatyi, reacting to Prigozhin’s comments before Russia’s announcement, told Reuters: “This is not true. Our units are fighting in Bakhmut.”
UKRAINE COUNTEROFFENSIVE EXPECTED
Whether the Ukrainian forces have left Bakhmut or not, they have been slowly pulling back inside it, to clusters of buildings on the city’s western edge.
Meanwhile, to the north and south, they have seized swathes of territory from Russian troops.
Russia has acknowledged losing some ground around Bakhmut in the past week, while denying assertions by Prigozhin that the flanks around the city guarded by regular troops have collapsed.
Kyiv says its aim in Bakhmut has been to draw Russian forces from elsewhere on the front into the city, to inflict high casualties there and weaken Moscow’s defensive line elsewhere ahead of a planned major counteroffensive.
(Writing by Peter Graff and David Ljunggren; Editing by Giles Elgood and Cynthia Osterman)
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