Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin asserted Saturday his mercenary troops had captured the key Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, a claim rejected by Ukrainian officials. File Pool Photo by Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE
May 20 (UPI) -- The leader of the Russian private military Wagner Group said Saturday his troops have captured the key eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, but Kyiv rejected the claims, saying the fight goes on.
"The operation to capture Bakhmut lasted 224 days," Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video posted on Telegram and translated by CNN.
Prigozhin's claims were not immediately independently verified. The video shows the billionaire posing with a Russian flag and members of his privately-funded militia saying he will hand the city over to regular Russian military troops soon.
Ukrainian officials pushed back against the narrative, saying they are still fighting for the strategic city located on the Bakhmutka River, about 55 miles north of Donetsk.
"As of now, our defenders control some industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area and the private sector," deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said in a Telegram post translated by Ukraine National News Agency.
Maliar, however, also called the current situation in the city "critical."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had yet to publicly address the Wagner Group's claims by Saturday evening as he was attending the Group of Seven Summit in Hiroshima, Japan. He was expected to sit down with U.S. President Joe Biden for an informal meeting at some point, the Washington Post reported.
The Wagner Group has been leading the attack against Bakhmut for months. Prigozhin and the group as a whole are considered mercenaries and are under EU and U.S. sanctions for "undermining the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine."
Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has overseen the induction of prisoners into the group.
Fighting in the city has dragged on at a slow pace. Both sides have at times claimed progress, only to see the stalemate continue. Russia admitted earlier this month that two of its senior commanders were killed in fighting for Bakhmut.
Ukrainian demonstrators rally in Kyiv on February 12, 2022 to show unity amid U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. Photo by Oleksandr Khomenko/UPI | License Photo