Ukraine: Prigozhin says Bakhmut is ‘surrounded’ by Wagner

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier and leader of the Russian Wagner Group, has claimed his fighters have “nearly encircled” Bakhmut as the last few residents remaining in the city frantically flee. Pressure mounted on Saturday on Ukrainian troops and civilians hunkering down in the city amid what Western analysts say may be preparations for a Ukrainian withdrawal.

A woman was killed and two men were badly wounded by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of Bakhmut on Saturday, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them.

Addressing the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directly, Prigozhin spoke of capturing Bakhmut while dressed in military attire, standing on top of a building overlooking Donetsk Oblast.

He said: “Dear Volodymr Zelensky, units of Wagner PMC have nearly surrounded Bakhmut. One route is remaining. Pincers are tightening.”

He claimed his fighters were battling against only “children and men”, suggesting the professional army of Ukraine had already fled. He added that their lives were “short”.

The camera subsequently cut to three Ukrainian POWs, who called on Mr Zelensky to let them “return to the motherland”. The claims by Prigozhin could not be verified.

A Ukrainian army representative, who asked not to be named for operational reasons, said on Saturday that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave the city by vehicle, and that people had to flee on foot instead.

Bakhmut has for months been a key target of Moscow’s grinding eastern offensive, with Russian troops, including large forces from the private Wagner Group, inching ever closer to Kyiv’s key eastern stronghold.

Ukrainian units over the past 36 hours destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to UK military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.

This is usually indicative of a retreat as the soldiers look to make as difficult as possible Russian attempts to advance further towards their positions.

The UK defence ministry said in the latest of its regular Twitter updates that the destruction of the bridges came as Russian fighters made further inroads into Bakhmut’s northern suburbs, ratcheting up the pressure on its Ukrainian defenders.

On Saturday morning, they said in a statement that Ukraine was coming under “increasing pressure” as the Russians continued to attack the city.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Kyiv’s actions may point to a looming Ukrainian pullout from parts of the city.

It said Ukrainian troops may “conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut,” while seeking to inhibit Russian movement there and limit exit routes to the west.

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Capturing Bakhmut would not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in the eastern Donetsk region.

As the fighting raged on, civilians remaining in the area spoke about their daily struggles amid near-constant enemy fire.

Bakhmut resident Hennadiy Mazepa and his wife Natalia Ishkova both chose to remain in Bakhmut, even as fierce battles reduced much of the city to rubble. On Saturday, Ishkova told local reporters that they suffered from a lack of food and basic utilities.

“Humanitarian (aid) is given to us only once a month. There is no electricity, no water, no gas,” she said. “I pray to God that all who remain here will survive,” Ishkova added.

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