The head of the Russian mercenary Wagner group claimed on Saturday to have taken control of the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, a claim Kyiv denied.
In a video posted on Telegram, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city came under complete Russian control at about midday Saturday.
In contrast, Ukrainian officials said fighting continued in the city, which has witnessed the longest battle of the war but that the situation was “critical”.
Take with a grain of salt. Prigozhin says Wagner’s forces have established full control over Bakhmut after a bloody siege that all but destroyed the city.
His declaration of triumph is a long rant about how Shoigu and Gerasimov were no help and Wagner mostly did it on their own pic.twitter.com/CVxrQY6p9R
— max seddon (@maxseddon) May 20, 2023
Prigozhin made the claim while surrounded by about half a dozen fighters, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
However, after the video appeared, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said heavy fighting was continuing.
“The situation is critical," she said. “As of now, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in this area."
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine's eastern command, also told the Associated Press news agency that Prigozhin's claim “is not true. Our units are fighting in Bakhmut."
Heavy fighting has raged around Bakhmut for more than 200 days.
The claim comes as British officials said on Saturday that Russia has been left with few uncommitted combat units in Ukraine.
In its latest intelligence update, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Russia’s redeployment of “up to several battalions” in the area over the past four days followed Ukrainian tactical gains on the flanks of the largely destroyed city.
The MoD added: “With Russia likely maintaining relatively few uncommitted combat units in Ukraine, the redeployment represents a notable commitment by the Russian command.
“Russia’s leadership likely continue to see capturing Bakhmut as the key immediate war aim which would allow them to claim some degree of success in the conflict.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is in Japan for talks with the leaders of the world's most powerful democracies at the G7 summit.
His personal appearance is aimed at galvanising Ukraine’s allies for more support against Russia’s 15-month invasion.
Kyiv has been preparing for a major push to take back territory seized by Russia since February last year.
Mr Zelesnky’s visit to the G7 summit comes just hours after the United States agreed to allow training on American-made fighter jets, laying the groundwork for their eventual transfer to Ukraine. The transfer of powerful fighter jets has been a key request from Kyiv.