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Zelensky says Bakhmut 'not occupied' by Russia

Wagner group chief insists his fighters have taken control of eastern city 'to the last centimetre'

By AFP - May 22,2023 - Last updated at May 22,2023

This video grab taken from a handout footage posted on Saturday on the Telegram account of the press service of Concord — a company linked to the chief of Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin — shows members of Wagner group waving a Russian national flag and Wagner Group's flag on the rooftop of a damaged building in Bakhmut (AFP photo)

KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday that Bakhmut was "not occupied" by Moscow, while the head of Russia's Wagner group insisted his fighters had taken control of the eastern city "to the last centimetre".

Kyiv's military said it was hanging on to a small part of the city and said its troops were advancing on its flanks.

Bakhmut, a salt-mining town that once had a population of 70,000 people, has been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in Moscow's more than year-long Ukraine offensive.

A day earlier, Wagner and Moscow's regular army claimed to have fully captured Bakhmut, with Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulating them on the alleged conquest.

But speaking at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Zelensky denied Russia's claims.

"Bakhmut is not occupied by Russia today," he said during a press conference.

"I cannot share with you the tactical views of our military. The most difficult thing would be if there was some tactical mistake in Bakhmut and our people were surrounded."

Sitting next to US President Joe Biden, Zelensky suggested it would be a pyrrhic victory for Moscow.

"You have to understand there is nothing" there in Bakhmut, he said on the sidelines of the summit in Japan.

Zelensky compared the "absolute total destruction" in Bakhmut to the devastation in Hiroshima when the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city in 1945.

"There is absolutely nothing alive [there]."

The Ukrainian army on Sunday said it retained an "insignificant" part of the city and that soldiers were advancing in from the city's outer limits.

"We continue to advance on the flanks in the suburbs of Bakhmut," said Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine's ground forces.

But Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of Wagner whose fighters have spearheaded Russia’s advance on Bakhmut, insisted that there were no Ukrainian troops there.

“There is not a single Ukrainian soldier in Bakhmut as we have stopped taking prisoners,” Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a post on Telegram.

“There are a huge number of corpses of Ukrainian soldiers.”

Prigozhin said that Zelensky was either not telling the truth or “like many of our own military leaders, simply does not know what is happening on the ground, this is a possibility.”

On Saturday, he had announced that his fighters had taken full control of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin said Wagner would hand over control of Bakhmut to the regular Russian army by May 25.

The loss of Bakhmut would be hugely symbolic for the Ukrainians, who had held on for months,  ignoring US advice behind the scenes to focus elsewhere.

But some analysts have said Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses on Russia in Bakhmut and forced it to commit large resources, potentially weakening its defences in other parts of the front line.

The fall of Bakhmut, where both Moscow and Kyiv are believed to have suffered huge losses, would allow Moscow to bring home a key victory after a series of humiliating defeats.

It would also come before a major counteroffensive that Kyiv has been preparing for months.

Zelensky himself has warned that the city’s loss would open the way for Russian troops to capture more of the Donbas region.


Putin congratulates Wagner, army 


The Russian army released a statement several hours after Prigozhin on Saturday.

“The liberation of the city of Artemovsk was completed,” it said, using the Soviet-era name of Bakhmut.

The Kremlin later congratulated both Wagner and the Russian army, who have been at increasing loggerheads during Moscow’s offensive.

“Vladimir Putin congratulated the assault units of Wagner as well as all servicemen of units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate” the city, TASS news agency quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.

Prigozhin had claimed Bakhmut fell to his mercenaries in a video posted on Telegram against a backdrop of ruins.

“Today on May 20, around midday, Bakhmut was taken in its entirety,” Prigozhin said.

Artillery fire could be heard in the background of Prigozhin’s video.

It was not possible for AFP to verify these claims.

The two camps are now awaiting the Ukraine counteroffensive, but Zelensky said recently his army needs more time before launching the assault.


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