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Ukraine war: Kiev rejects Wagner’s claim over Bakhmut

Ukraine war: Kiev rejects Wagner's claim over Bakhmut

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The battle for Bakhmut has become the longest of the war that Russia started last year

Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated the Wagner paramilitary group after it claimed to have captured the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin – posing with some of his fighters – made the claim in a video posted on social media on Saturday.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister denied the claim but admitted the situation in the city was “critical”.

One of the bloodiest battles of the war, fighting has raged since August.

Wagner’s paramilitary forces have led the Russian assault on Bakhmut – which analysts say is of little strategic value to Moscow – and has seen thousands of troops killed.

Ukraine, for its part, has also decided to take a stand in a battle that has become the longest and bloodiest of the war so far.

But in comments carried by Russian state media, Mr Putin claimed that Wagner troops, backed by Russian air force jets, had completed “the operation to liberate” Bakhmut on Saturday after months of intense fighting.

Sir. Prigozhin, a close ally of the Russian president, leads the thousand-strong group, nominally a private military company.

He has previously claimed that his forces have taken Bakhmut – or most of it – only for Ukrainians to quickly deny the claims. Sir. Prigozhin has also attacked Russian military officials, publicly criticizing them for not supplying his troops with enough ammunition.

In his latest video claiming control of Bakhmut, Mr Prigozhin said “no one can pedantically blame us that at least a part was not taken”.

Explosions can be heard in the background, suggesting that fighting continues close to the city, if not inside it.

He also promised to hand over the city to regular Russian troops later this month.

His claims were echoed by the Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday evening, state media in Moscow reported.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed to control Bakhmut in a video flanked by Wagner warriors

But in a statement on the Telegram messaging platform moments later, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said: “Fierce fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical.

“Currently, our defenders control some industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area and the private sector.”

Western officials estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in Bakhmut, while Ukraine’s military has also paid a heavy price.

There is hardly a building unscathed, and the entire population of the city has disappeared.

The latest Wagner claim came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Japan to attend a meeting of the leaders of the world’s most industrialized nations, the G7.

His Western allies pledged more support, including taking a significant step toward providing F-16 fighter jets, and announced more sanctions against Russia.

Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year and control parts of its east.

Ukraine has been expected to launch an offensive to recapture seized territories, but Mr Zelensky said recently that more time is needed to prepare.

He has called Bakhmut “a fortress” of Ukrainian morality.

Ukraine’s hope is that the battle for Bakhmut has blunted Russia’s ability to conduct its own offensive operations and exhausted its army and supplies.

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