Head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claims control of Bakhmut

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed his forces had “completely” taken the eastern Ukrainian city of Bahkmut which has become a flashpoint of the conflict.

“Today, at 12 noon, Bakhmut was completely taken,” Prigozhin said in a video.

He said his forces would withdraw from the city on May 25 to regroup, adding: “We completely took the whole city, from house to house.”

Kyiv, however, has denied the claim with a top Ukrainian defence official calling the situation on the front “critical”.

“Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical. As of now, our defenders control some industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area and the private sector,” Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said on the Telegram messaging app.

The city has become an important flashpoint on the eastern front with both Russian and Ukrainian forces pouring men and material into the battle. Casualties have been high on both sides.

Prigozhin has used the city – now a wasteland of shattered buildings and trenches – to showcase his mercenary group’s brutality.

He has, in recent months, called out the regular Russian military for withholding equipment and ammunition.

In late March, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) estimated that Wagner had around 6,000 professional soldiers and 20,000 to 30,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons in the city.

Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of those fighters are thought to have been killed or wounded in the fighting.

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The strategic value of the mid-sized city which had a pre-war population of around 70,000 has been questioned by Western officials in the past.

If Russian forces have taken control of Bakhmut, they will still face the massive task of seizing the remaining part of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.

Analysts have said Bakhmut’s fall would be a blow to Ukraine and give some tactical advantages to Russia but wouldn’t prove decisive to the outcome of the war.

However, both sides have used the battle as a rallying cry and Russian capture of the town would mean a morale victory for Moscow at least.

The news comes as Ukraine’s President Zelensky is in Japan to meet with G7 leaders, including US President Joe Biden on Sunday.

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