The head of the Wagner mercenary force said his troops had raised the Russian flag over the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut’s administrative building, but Ukraine’s military said its defenders were still fighting in the ruined streets.
Bakhmut has been the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war, now in its second year, with huge casualties on both sides and much of the eastern city destroyed by bombardments.
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said his troops, who have spearheaded the Kremlin’s campaign to encircle and capture Bakhmut, had raised a Russian flag on its administrative building in the city centre. But he acknowledged that Ukrainian troops were still holding positions.
“From a legal point of view, Bakhmut has been taken. The enemy is concentrated in the western parts,” he said in video posted on Telegram on Sunday. Prigozhin has previously made claims that were premature.
But the Ukrainian military said on Monday that fighting was still going on in Bakhmut and several other towns.
“The enemy continues its assault on the city of Bakhmut. However, our defenders courageously hold the city,” the military said.
Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odesa military administration, also scorned Prigozhin’s claim.
“What does it mean: if the flag of Ukraine is hung on a Moscow building, it means that Moscow is taken?” he said on Telegram. “And we, Ukrainians, are in the western districts of the city.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his Sunday night video address, thanked soldiers fighting in Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Maryinka.
“Especially Bakhmut. It is especially hot there,” he said.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said fighting had engulfed the centre of Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces had repelled 25 enemy attacks but Russian forces had captured the AZOM metal plant, he said.
“The enemy is attacking the city centre from the north, the east and the south and is trying to take the city under its full control,” Zhdanov said in a video on YouTube.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
A mining city and logistics hub on the edge of a chunk of Donetsk province under Russian control, Bakhmut had a population of 70,000 before Moscow invaded Ukraine in February last year.
Russian forces, bogged down in a war of attrition after a series of setbacks, are seeking a victory to give new momentum to a winter offensive but they have suffered huge casualties in the battle for Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military commanders have said their own counteroffensive – backed by newly delivered Western tanks and other hardware – is not far off but they have stressed the importance of holding Bakhmut and inflicting losses on their enemy in the meantime.
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation”, claiming Kyiv’s ties to the West posed a security threat. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed. Russia has destroyed Ukrainian cities and forced millions of people to flee their homes, and it claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine.
Meanwhile Moscow’s ambassador to Minsk said on Sunday that Russia would move nuclear weapons close to the western borders of Belarus – a move that would place them at NATO’s threshold.
The weapons “will increase the possibilities to ensure security”, ambassador Boris Gryzlov told Belarusian state television.
“This will be done despite the noise in Europe and the United States.”
In warnings to the West against arming Ukraine, Russian officials increasingly play up the risks of nuclear weapons being used in the war, and last month said they would station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus.