Ukrainian troops are still advancing on the flanks of Bakhmut and have a small foothold inside the eastern city, a defence official in Kyiv has said, again raising doubts on Russia’s claims.
Over the weekend, the Wagner Group and Russian military chiefs announced the capture of Bakhmut after months of heavy fighting.
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But on Monday, Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said in televised comments: “We are still advancing, but the intensity is somewhat reduced.
“If we talk about the north, there is much less active action there. If we talk about the south, we are advancing and the defence of Bakhmut as a city has completely fulfilled its military objective.”
On Saturday, Russia announced it had taken control of Bakhmut after a bloody 15-month battle, which, if confirmed, would be a significant success for Moscow after facing setbacks on the front lines.
The fight for the city has been the longest and bloodiest of the war so far.
Mercenary forces, who have spearheaded the fight, posted videos on Telegram waving Wagner and Russian flags in the destroyed city.
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his army and Wagner on the alleged capture.
To Moscow, seizing Bakhmut would be a stepping stone towards advancing deeper into the Donbas region and towards the city of Sloviansk.
However, since making the announcement, officials from Russia and Ukraine have given contrasting status updates about who has won the city or whether fighting was still ongoing.
On Sunday, Ukrainian General Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Telegram that Kyiv’s troops were continuing to advance on Russian forces in the suburbs and getting closer to a “tactical encirclement” of the city.
Maliar echoed Syrskyi’s observations on Sunday, saying a “semi-encirclement” could allow Ukraine to “destroy the enemy … the enemy has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls”.
At a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) countries in Japan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Bakhmut had not fallen and likened the city to the destruction of Hiroshima.
Responding to a reporter’s question about the city’s status, he said: “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner forces, responded to Zelenskyy’s comments, saying: “There is not a single Ukrainian soldier in the village of Bakhmut, for the reason that we have stopped taking prisoners.
“There are a huge number of corpses of the Ukrainian military. Bakhmut is taken completely along all its legal boundaries, to the last centimetre. [Zelenskyy] is disingenuous, or he, like our military leaders, is simply not aware of what is happening on the ground.”
On Monday, Prigozhin said his troops would leave Bakhmut later this week after taking the city as promised and transfer control of Bakhmut to the Russian military.