Ukraine’s military said its troops were locked in combat with Russian forces around the administration building of Bakhmut on Monday, and it poured scorn on Russian claims that mercenary fighters had captured the eastern city after months of warfare.
A Ukrainian spokesman said the Russians had raised a victory flag not over the building but over “some kind of toilet”.
In Moscow, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of being behind a bomb blast at a cafe in St Petersburg on Sunday that killed a prominent Russian pro-war blogger. Russia said it had arrested a woman suspected of blowing up the blogger.
The battle for Bakhmut has been one of the bloodiest of the conflict, now in its second year, with many casualties on both sides and much of the eastern city destroyed by bombardments.
Front lines have shifted backwards and forwards in street-by-street fighting.
The head of the Wagner mercenary force, which has spearheaded the Kremlin’s campaign to encircle and capture Bakhmut, said on Sunday his troops had raised a Russian flag on the administrative building in the city centre.
Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged that Ukrainian troops were still holding some positions.
But he said in video posted on Telegram: “From a legal point of view, Bakhmut has been taken. The enemy is concentrated in the western parts.”
Prigozhin has previously made claims that were premature.
The Ukrainian military said on Monday however that fighting was still going on in Bakhmut as well as in several other towns.
Serhiy Cherevatiy, spokesperson for the eastern military command, said the Russian claim to have captured the city was false. Clashes were taking place around the city council building, he said.
“Bakhmut is Ukrainian and they have not captured anything and are very far from doing that, to put it mildly,” he told Reuters.
“They raised the flag over some kind of toilet. They attached it to the side of who knows what, hung their rag and said they had captured the city. Well good, let them think they’ve taken it,” Cherevatyi said by telephone.
Earlier the Ukrainian military said the Russians were assaulting the city but its defenders were courageously holding on.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his Sunday night video address, thanked the 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.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the assassination of blogger Vladlen Tatarsky on Sunday “a terrorist act” and cited Russia’s Anti-Terrorism Committee in saying that there was evidence linking Ukraine to the bombing.
The woman arrested – Darya Trepova – is a Russian citizen who has previously been detained for protesting against the war in Ukraine, the TASS state news agency reported.
Peskov said security would be beefed up for Russia’s Victory Day holiday in May.
Ukraine has not commented on Peskov’s suggestion that it may have been behind the blast, but Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelenskiy, said on Sunday it had only been a matter of time – “like the bursting of a ripe abscess” – before Russia became consumed by what he called domestic terrorism.
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.