(Kyiv) The Russian paramilitary group Wagner, whose men are on the front line on the front line in Ukraine, claimed on Friday to have “virtually surrounded” Bakhmout, a symbolic city of the East, and called on President Volodymyr Zelensky to sound the withdrawal of his troops.
The battle for Bakhmout, an industrial city of disputed strategic importance, has been going on since the summer and has led to great destruction and heavy casualties on both sides.
The city has become a symbol, as it has been the epicenter of fighting between Russians and Ukrainians for months.
In recent weeks, Russian forces had advanced north and south of Bakhmut, cutting three of the four Ukrainian supply routes and making the position of the defenders increasingly precarious.
“Wagner’s units have practically surrounded Bakhmout, there is only one road left” to get out, Wagner boss Evgeny Prigojine said on Friday in a video posted on Telegram by his press service.
In combat gear and speaking as a loud explosion is heard in the distance, Mr Prigozhin called on Mr Zelensky – who had vowed to defend Bakhmut “as long as possible” – to order Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the city.
“If before we faced a professional Ukrainian army, which fought against us, today we see more and more old people and children. They are fighting, but their life in Bakhmout is short, a day or two,” Prigojine said.
“Give them a chance to leave the city, it is practically surrounded,” he added.
The video then shows three people, an elderly man and two young people, asking on camera Mr Zelensky to allow them to leave.
Volodymyr Zelensky went to Bakhmout in December and presented the US Congress, during his visit to Washington shortly after, with a Ukrainian flag from that part of the front.
The Ukrainian military command had admitted on Tuesday an “extremely tense” situation in Bakhmout in the face of a Russian breakthrough attempt.
Mr. Zelensky for his part had noted the same day an increase in the “intensity of the fighting” around the city, which had some 70,000 inhabitants before the war. There are now 4,500 left, despite the danger, according to local authorities.
The Ukrainian general staff gave no details on the situation in Bakhmout on Friday, contenting itself with noting that the army had repelled 85 Russian attacks on the entire front in the past 24 hours.
On Wednesday, the spokesman for the eastern command of the Ukrainian army, Serguiï Tcherevaty, had denied to AFP that a withdrawal from Bakhmout was in progress.
Ukrainian soldiers recently interviewed by AFP on the spot tried, for some, to remain optimistic. Others reported a lack of men, ammunition, and artillery support.
Foray into Russia
Wagner’s threats come the day after an incident in the Russian region of Briansk, bordering Ukraine, an incident which Moscow presented as an incursion by Ukrainian “saboteurs”.
According to the Russian security services, this group opened fire on a car, killing two civilians and injuring a child in the village of Lioubetchané, located just on the border with Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured Friday that Moscow would “take measures” to prevent future Ukrainian infiltrations. “Conclusions will be drawn at the end of the investigation,” he added.
The Ukrainian presidency has denied these allegations, seeing in them a “deliberate provocation” which, according to it, aims to justify the invasion that Moscow has been carrying out for more than a year.
In two videos posted on social media, the authenticity of which AFP could not verify, four men in fatigues posing as members of a group of “Russian volunteers” within the Ukrainian army claimed this infiltration.
Russian and Ukrainian media have recognized one of these men as Denis Nikitin, a Russian neo-Nazi who has lived in Ukraine for several years.
The Russian Investigative Committee announced on Friday that it had sent a team to the scene, saying the situation was “under the control of law enforcement”. Russian security forces (FSB) said they found a “large amount of explosives” in the area.
According to Russian MP Alexander Khinchtein, four members of the National Guard were injured during an operation in the village of Souchany, also on the border.
Russian authorities also reported several Ukrainian drone attacks this week that also targeted annexed Crimea. For the first time, a machine fell near Moscow, without doing any damage.
On Friday, law enforcement sources quoted by the TASS agency reported the explosion of a drone in the sky of the Kolomna region, about 100 kilometers southeast of Moscow.