The head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group claimed to have secured control of an eastern Ukrainian salt-mining town, but Kyiv denied Soledar has fallen and the Kremlin called for caution over victory declarations.
Battles continued on Wednesday in the centre of Soledar, which has been the focus of days of intense fighting as Russia sees the town as key to its campaign for the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut and Ukraine’s larger eastern Donbas region.
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“Wagner units took control of the entire territory of Soledar. A cauldron has been formed in the centre of the city in which urban fighting is going on,” Russian news agencies reported Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as saying late on Tuesday.
“The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow,” Prigozhin added. The encircled Ukrainian soldiers had been given an ultimatum to surrender by midnight (22:00 GMT), the group said on Telegram.
But Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Ukrainian television on Wednesday that Kyiv’s forces had not allowed Russian forces to break through the front lines.
The Ukrainian military said in a statement that “Soledar was, is and will be Ukrainian,” and that pictures released by Wagner that Russian media said were taken in Soledar had been taken elsewhere.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it was important not to “rush” to declare victory in Soledar.
“Let’s not rush. Let’s wait for official announcements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that there was a “positive dynamic in advances” in Soledar and saluting the “heroism of our fighters”.
It was not possible to verify the conditions on the ground.
Soledar is about 15km (9 miles) from Bakhmut, and its capture would have symbolic, military and commercial value for Russia.
The Russian state RIA news agency issued a report saying the Wagner Group had taken over Soledar’s salt mines following “fierce fighting”, while Prigozhin shared a photo of himself surrounded by his mercenaries in what he said was one of the mines.
Still, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, also raised alarm over Russian claims.
“Russian forces have not captured the entirety of #Soledar despite false Russian claims that the city has fallen and that #Bakhmut risks imminent encirclement,” it said in a Twitter thread, noting that Prigozhin himself had acknowledged that urban warfare was continuing.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Kyiv, said if Russia seizes Soledar, “it would be something of a battlefield gain [for Moscow], and they certainly haven’t had one for many months”.
“It would also open up the way to really focus on the town of Bakhmut which is not far from Soledar. [Bakhmut] has been the focus of intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces for many weeks and months now. Russians want to try and control the city, and a victory there would be symbolic for them, but again Ukrainian officials are saying that their troops on the ground are putting up stiff resistance and still very much holding their positions.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not mention control of Soledar in his regular video address on Tuesday evening when he repeated his call for more Western weapons, saying Russia was looking to intensify its military campaign.
Ukraine said earlier its forces were still holding on to positions in Soledar, withstanding assaults by wave after wave of Russian forces seeking their first battlefield victory in months.
Seizing Soledar would be Russia’s most substantial gain since August, after a series of humiliating retreats in the northeast and south in the second half of 2022.
But any victory in Bakhmut would come at an enormous cost, with troops from both sides having taken heavy losses in some of the most intense fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year.
Kyiv has released pictures in recent days showing what it says are the bodies of many Russian soldiers strewn in muddy fields.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would be a crucial step towards taking full control of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, one of four provinces it claimed to have annexed two months ago.