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The head of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group said his mercenaries had captured Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, a claim denied by the Ukrainian military, even though his troops were based on a shrinking patch of land inside the ruined city. I was forced

Senior Ukrainian military officials acknowledged that the situation inside the city was “critical”, with troops facing an incredible barrage of artillery fire and powerful aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, he said, the Ukrainian military was still engaged in combat operations.

The Russian Defense Ministry and the Kremlin issued a statement confirming that the city had been “liberated”, hours after the announcement by Wagner Major, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, that the battle for the city was over. After nearly a year of fighting, Bakhmut has taken on an even greater significance: a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and Russian leaders’ determination to blast their way to a small victory in a little-known corner of eastern Ukraine.

In a video posted on Saturday on the Telegram messaging app, Mr. Prigozhin, standing in front of the city’s destroyed railway station, held up a Russian flag and declared victory. “Today, in the afternoon, Bakhmut was completely taken,” said Mr. Prigozhin, “we took the whole city house by house.”

About an hour later, Hanna Mlyar, a deputy defense minister in Ukraine, said that Ukrainian troops were still holding their ground in “some industrial and infrastructure facilities” in the southwest corner of Bakhmut. “Heavy fighting” continued, she said in a brief statement.

General Alexander Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said the battle for Bakhmut was not over. “The fight is on for every meter of territory,” he said in a statement. He left a video Saturday afternoon he showed Ukrainian special forces operating in the city.

The Russian government released a statement late Saturday claiming that the conquest of the city was “complete” and attributed the success to “offensive actions by Wagner assault units” supported by artillery and aviation units.

A statement released by the Kremlin said that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin “congratulated the Wagner assault teams as well as all Russian servicemen,” and promised that the fighters would be “recommended for state decorations.”

Military analysts and some Ukrainian officials have said that their stand at Bakhmut served two strategic objectives related to the expected counteroffensive: demoralizing Russian forces and forcing Russian commanders to pull troops from elsewhere on the front lines To do, to weaken the defensive position.

Recently, Ukrainian forces have been gaining ground on the north and south sides of the city, forcing Russian forces to move thousands of troops into the area, the British military intelligence agency wrote on Saturday. “With Russia likely to maintain relatively few unrestricted combat units in Ukraine, the redeployment represents a notable commitment by the Russian command.”

Mr Prigozhin, who used his victory speech to issue another scathing indictment of the Russian military establishment, was undoubtedly aware of its dilemma when he said he would pull his troops out of the city by May 25 – a threat that He had issued before and is not done.

For now, though, Wagner remains relentless on the force attack.

Ukrainian soldiers who had recently been fighting in the city the previous week described the horrific violence Wagner’s forces unleashed in an attempt to dissuade them from their last doubts.

Every night for the past two weeks, sometimes twice a night, the Russians have rained incendiary ammunition on Ukrainian positions. As the fire burns, Russian artillery and tanks blast the positions day and night, and snipers lie in wait in battered buildings to prevent the Ukrainians from bringing in reinforcements or evacuating the troops.

Satellite imagery and images taken by drones posted on social media by both Russian and Ukrainian forces testify to the destruction of the city in the most intense urban warfare in a generation.

Many buildings have been razed to the ground. Others are burnt ships. some corners of the city untouchable. “In the town of Bakhmut, they turn buildings into ashes,” Ms. Maliar said on Friday night. “Only the foundation remains, which cannot be defended.”

While Ukrainian forces may still be hanging on, they have been retreating step by step for months and may be planning to retreat to more easily defended ground.

Essentially, Ukraine is trying to turn the script on the fight.

For almost a year, it was the Russian army that was attacking the Ukrainians inside the city while also trying to encircle them. Now, with Wagner largely in control of the city, the Ukrainians are trying to encircle the Russians through their attacks on the northern and southern flanks.

While the counterattack has shifted Ukraine’s momentum to some areas outside the city, the operation is still in its early stages. The Ukrainian military said its forces had recaptured about 12 square miles of territory north and south of the city, but acknowledged the gains had come at a heavy price.

The battle for Bakhmut – a medium-sized town with limited strategic military value – has grown in importance as Ukraine was far longer than some military analysts had predicted. Bakhmut sits on low-lying ground and is not a rail hub like other hard-fought cities in the east such as Lyman or Izium.

The phrase “Bakhmut Holds” is emblazoned on the T-shirt, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has called Bakhmut the “fortress” of Ukraine.

“We will fight as long as we can,” he said in February, as Russian troops came close to encircling Ukrainian troops in the city.

Mr Zelensky was in Japan on Saturday urging the world’s richest democracies to stick together, while the Kremlin hopes war fatigue will weaken the resolve of Kiev’s allies. There was no immediate comment from Wagner’s office on Boss’s claims.

Ukrainian military commanders have suggested that there may be a time when they will pull troops from the city itself, but this will not be the end of the battle for Bakhmut.

Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military in the east, said on Friday night that Ukrainian troops would continue fighting in the city until “it causes excessive damage to the enemy and allows us to preserve our forces.”

Earlier this month, the White House estimated that Russia had suffered 100,000 casualties since December, with more than 20,000 killed, with many losses in Bakhmut.

Ukraine has also suffered heavy losses in months of brutal war, but it rarely updates its casualties.

Mr. Prigozhin, who recruited thousands of defectors to bolster his military campaign and executed many in key charges of Ukrainian positions, blamed the Russian military establishment for the high casualties that Wagner suffered.

“We were fighting not only the Ukrainian army in Bakhmut, we were also fighting the Russian bureaucracy which was obstructing our efforts,” Mr Prigozhin said on Saturday. “Because of his whims, five times more people died than those who died.”

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