Russian troops have been congratulated by Vladimir Putin after the Kremlin claimed they had on Saturday taken control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Referring to Bakhmut by its Soviet-era name, Artyomovsk, the Russian defence ministry said: “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.”
President Putin on Saturday said troops who had distinguished themselves in the battle would be given awards.
Victory for the Russians would mark an end to ferocious and bloody fighting that has raged for months and come at significant cost to Moscow.
Earlier on Saturday, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said his troops had captured the whole of the city, a claim that Ukrainian officials immediately denied.
Yevgeny Prigozhin also said on Saturday that his forces would begin withdrawing from the destroyed city in the Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, from Thursday.
Mr Prigozhin has previously claimed victory in Bakhmut by raising the Russian flag above important buildings, but Ukraine has insisted it is holding on and the fighting has continued.
“The operation to capture Bakhmut, ‘The Bakhmut meat grinder’, lasted 224 days,” he said in a speech posted on his Telegram channel. “For 224 days the guys stormed the city. There were only Wagner mercenaries there.”
Within minutes, Ukrainian officials, who have said for the past 10 days that they have been taking ground from Russian forces in Bakhmut, denied Mr Prigozhin’s claim.
“It’s not true. Our units continue to fight in Bakhmut,” said Sergei Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military group.
Fighting is believed to be concentrated around a handful of streets in Bakhmut’s northwest.
Mr Prigozhin recorded his six-minute speech standing near a row of destroyed buildings. Artillery could be heard booming in the background and nine impassive mercenaries stood around him holding Wagner and Russian flags.
Mr Prigozhin, who has previously admitted that Bakhmut holds little strategic value, had promised to hand Vladimir Putin his first notable battlefield victory against Ukraine in more than a year.
Analysts have said that Wagner has lost tens of thousands of men fighting in Bakhmut, mainly convicts recruited from Russian prisons.
Mr Prigozhin, considered to be one of Mr Putin’s most trusted allies, has rowed with the Russian ministry of defence over the last six months.
On Saturday, he once again blamed Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian military, for causing excess deaths.
He had previously threatened to quit the battle for Bakhmut if the defence ministry did not send his fighters more ammunition.
“We fought not only with the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Bakhmut, but also with Russian bureaucracy, military bureaucracy,” he said.
Earlier, the British Ministry of Defence said that Ukrainian advances around Bakhmut were sucking in Russian forces and exhausting them before Kyiv goes on the offensive.
“In the last four days, Russia has highly likely redeployed up to several battalions to reinforce the Bakhmut sector,” the British ministry said. “With Russia likely maintaining relatively few uncommitted combat units in Ukraine, the redeployment represents a notable commitment by the Russian command.”
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