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Kiev Challenges Russian Takeover of Eastern Bakhmut: Wagner

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The Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed Wednesday that it had captured the eastern bank of Bakhmut, which witnessed one of the fiercest battles in the year-long war.

The announcement came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that if Bakhmut fell, Moscow would get an “open road” to attacks deeper into the country.

Wagner’s boss and Kremlin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin said on social media that his forces had “captured all the eastern part of Bakhmut,” a salt-mining town that had a pre-war population of 80,000.

The intense fighting around Bakhmut was the longest and bloodiest of Russia’s more than a year-long invasion, which has devastated swathes of Ukraine and displaced millions of people.

In an interview with CNN, Zelensky warned of what would happen if Bakhmut fell to Russian forces.

“We understand that after Bakhmut, (Russian troops) can go further” and attack nearby cities in the Donetsk region.

“They can go to Kramatorsk, they can go to Slovensk, and it will be an open road for the Russians after Pakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the direction of Donetsk,” Zelensky said in an interview set to air on Wednesday.

Wagner led the attack on Bakhmut, and its chief, Prigozhin, came into conflict with the Russian military leadership.

Russia looks forward to ‘further attack’

During a televised meeting Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told military officials that capturing the city would allow “further offensive operations” in eastern Ukraine.

Prigozhin estimated the day before that between “12,000 and 20,000” Ukrainian soldiers were still defending the city.

Zelensky told CNN that his armed forces are determined to stay in Bakhmut.

“Of course, we have to think about the lives of our army. But we have to do everything we can while we get weapons and supplies and our army prepares for the counterattack.”

Zelensky was due to meet UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Kiev, on his third visit to Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

The talks had been expected to focus on extending an agreement with Russia allowing Ukraine to export its grain.

European Union defense ministers also met in Stockholm to discuss a plan to send 1 billion euros worth of munitions to Ukraine, as pressure mounts on Kiev’s allies to boost supplies for the war effort.

Ukraine’s Western backers warn that Kiev is facing an acute shortage of 155mm howitzers as it fires thousands a day as it battles the grinding Russian offensive.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during a visit to Canada on Tuesday, reiterated the European determination to push back against Russian aggression.

But a New York Times report on Tuesday alleging that US officials saw new intelligence indicating that a “pro-Ukrainian group” was behind last year’s sabotage of Nord Stream gas pipelines may raise tough questions among allies.

“This is not our activity,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told reporters in Stockholm.

Glory to Ukraine

As Russia said it was close to capturing Bakhmut, Ukraine said it had identified a soldier missing in the area and shot dead in a video that sparked outrage on social media.

The footage shows what appears to be a detained Ukrainian fighter standing in a shallow trench and smoking, then being shot after saying “Glory to Ukraine”.

“Based on an initial examination, we believe the video may be authentic,” a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office told AFP on Wednesday.

Both sides said the Battle of Bakhmut cost a large number of troops, though neither gave figures.

Ukrainian officials say about 4,000 civilians, including dozens of children, remain in the town, which has been nearly leveled.

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