Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday his Wagner Group fighters had completed the capture of Bakhmut, but Ukraine rejected the claim and said fighting was still going on in its eastern city.
Prigozhin made the claim in a video in which he appeared in combat fatigues in front of a line of fighters holding Russian flags and Wagner banners.
Reuters was able to confirm the location as Bakhmut as the city’s train station and nearby residential buildings are visible, matching file and satellite imagery of the area.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the date the video was filmed.
“Today, at noon, at 12 o’clock, Bakhmut has been fully captured,” Prigozhin said.
Ukrainian military spokesperson Serhiy Cherevatyi told Reuters: “This is not true. Our units are fighting in Bakhmut.”
Bakhmut has been the focus of the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is approaching its 16th month.
Distant explosions could be heard in the background as Prigozhin spoke during the video, in which he said his forces would withdraw from Bakhmut on May 25 for rest and retraining, handing over control to the regular Russian army.
Prigozhin repeated complaints he has frequently made in the past that his forces suffered far heavier losses than necessary because of inadequate support and ammunition supplies from the army.
Earlier this month he had threatened to pull his troops out after publishing a furious tirade against Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu while standing in a field of bloodied corpses.
Because of Russian bureaucracy and the “whims” of Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, “five times more guys died than should have.”
His victory claim followed fierce fighting around the city in the past week in which Ukraine said it pushed back some Russian forces.
British defense intelligence said on Saturday it was “highly likely” that Russia had deployed up to several battalions to reinforce the Bakhmut sector, following Ukrainian tactical gains on the flanks of the town.
It said this represented 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,” it said on Twitter.
Prigozhin himself acknowledged that Bakhmut, a city of 70,000 people before the war, had no strategic significance, but it took on huge symbolic importance for both sides because of the sheer intensity of the fighting and the scale of losses.
He also took the opportunity to taunt Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and U.S. President Joe Biden, who were taking part in a Group of Seven (G7) summit in Japan on Saturday, where the Ukraine war was front of mind for world leaders.
After praising the efforts of Ukrainian forces, Prigozhin addressed Zelenskiy and said: “Today when you see Biden, kiss him on the top of his head, say hi to him from me.”