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Kiev denies Russian Wagner Company’s claim of 80% control over Bakhmut

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The commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claimed on Tuesday that his forces now control more than 80% of the war-torn city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, after a recent escalation in fighting.

Senior Ukrainian military officials did not address the allegations directly, but said their forces were holding firm in the face of ferocious attacks in a city that once had a population of 70,000 and keeping an eye on Russian forces.

Wagner fighters led Russia’s months-long effort to capture Bakhmut. The grinding trench warfare and constant artillery bombardment have drawn comparisons to World War I due to the massive casualties on both sides.

Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said his forces, which had played a major role in the Russian advance in the east, were continuing to encircle Bakhmut.

“In Bakhmut, the largest part, more than 80% is now under our control, including the entire administrative center, factories, warehouses, and the city administration,” he said in a video posted by a Russian military blogger.

The head of the Russian-installed Donetsk region, one of four regions declared annexed by Moscow last September, said Russian forces backed the Ukrainian defenders in Zawiya.

“In the western regions where their units have been dug in, they have no choice but to advance and abandon themselves,” Russian news agencies quoted Denis Pushlin as telling state television.

Serhiy Chervaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Military Command, said the situation in Bakhmut was under control, adding that Kiev would not allow its forces to be surrounded.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar admitted that Bakhmut “took the main blow” in the fighting. But she said that Russian forces “generally lose to us in street battles, so they simply destroy all buildings and facilities.”

Kiev says it needs more and better Western weapons to beat Russia, and senior Ukrainian officials have pressed hard as they try to persuade allies to open up the stockpiles.

American support “Ironclad”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba took to Twitter on Tuesday saying he had received assurances of “uncompromising” US support from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is hosting his Ukrainian counterpart on Tuesday, pledged fresh supplies of assault rifles, machine guns and ammunition.

Prigozhin had earlier made claims about Russia’s takeover of the mining town which turned out to be premature, but Ukraine admits that the situation at what it calls “Fortress Bakhmut” is now very difficult.

Russia says the capture of Bakhmut would open the way for future attacks across Ukraine, while Kiev and the West say the now shattered city has only symbolic significance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to continue defending Bakhmut, but last week acknowledged the possibility of withdrawing forces if they risked being surrounded.

Russian forces made only incremental gains in their advance through eastern Ukraine. Kiev says the rival forces have suffered heavy losses after launching a mobilization of about 300,000 men late last year.

The lower house of Russia’s parliament moved on Tuesday to fill gaps in the draft by introducing electronic military draft papers for the first time in its history. Government officials said there were no plans to force more men to fight in Ukraine.

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