By Spy Uganda Correspondent
Russia has claimed to have fully captured Ukraine’s Bakhmut, with President Vladimir Putin congratulating his troops and the mercenary Wagner Group for taking the largely levelled eastern city.
The Russian announcement on Saturday came hours after Kyiv said the battle was still continuing while admitting the situation was “critical”.
The fall of Bakhmut, where both Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered huge losses, would represent Moscow’s first big victory in the conflict in more than 10 months.
“As a result of offensive actions of the Wagner assault units, with the support of artillery and aviation of the ‘Southern’ unit, the liberation of the city of Artemovsk was completed,” Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement, using the Soviet-era name of Bakhmut.
“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, the TASS state news agency quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.
The Russian president said those who had distinguished themselves would be given awards, the news agency added.
Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin earlier claimed the city had fallen to his mercenaries in a video posted on Telegram, in which fighters held Russian flags against a backdrop of ruins.
“Today on May 20, around midday, Bakhmut was taken in its entirety,” Prigozhin said in the video, adding that Wagner fighters would search the captured city before handing it over to the Russian army.
“By May 25 we will completely examine [Bakhmut], create the necessary lines of defence and hand it to the military,” Prigozhin said. “We ourselves will go into field camps.”
Artillery sound could be heard in the background of Prigozhin’s video.
Russia’s announcement that the city had fallen came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was set to meet with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, in Japan during the G7 summit.
Biden, who has spearheaded Western backing of Ukraine with sanctions and supplies, “looks forward” to the meeting, a senior official in the United States said, adding that it is expected to take place after 2:00pm local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday.
The Ukrainian president, who was flown in on a French government plane, was able to meet not just G7 leaders but those from other key international players such as unaligned powers Brazil and India.
The fruits of his diplomatic efforts have already paid off, with the US announcing Friday that it would allow Kyiv to acquire F-16 fighter jets, the most sophisticated material yet supplied by the West.
En route to Japan, Zelenskyy also stopped at an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia.
The Vatican said on Saturday that Pope Francis had asked Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, to carry out a peace mission to try to help end the war.