MOSCOW: Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group on Monday claimed it had “in a legal sense” captured the eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut — the site of the longest battle of Moscow’s operation in the country — with its units now in control of city hall.
The Wagner group has supported Russian troops throughout the offensive to surround Bakhmut, the fight for which both sides have invested heavily, despite analysts’ assertions that the city carries little strategic value.
“The commanders of the units that took city hall and the whole center will go and put up this flag,” Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel, referencing a Russian flag he is seen holding in a video accompanying the post.
“This is the Wagner private military company, these are the guys who took Bakhmut. In a legal sense, it’s ours.”
On March 20, Prigozhin had claimed Wagner units controlled 70 percent of the town.
Hours before Prigozhin’s claim, the Ukrainian general staff late Sunday said that though “the enemy has not stopped its assault of Bakhmut... Ukrainian defenders are courageously holding the city as they repel numerous enemy attacks.”
Also Sunday evening, President Volodymyr Zelensky had praised Ukrainian troops’ defense of the city, much of which now lies in ruins.
“I am grateful to our warriors who are fighting near Avdiivka, Maryinka, near Bakhmut... Especially Bakhmut! It’s especially hot there today!” Zelensky said in his own post to Telegram.
Near Bakhmut, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) away in Kostyantynivka, a “massive attack” of Russian missiles left three men and three women dead and eleven wounded Sunday, Ukrainian authorities said.
Zelensky said the affected zones are “just residential areas,” where “ordinary civilians of an ordinary city of Donbas” were targeted.
There was a large crater in a yard and windows were shattered from ground to top floors in two 14-story tower blocks, while private homes nearby had smashed roofs, AFP journalists saw.
Donetsk regional police said Russia fired S-300 and Uragan missiles in a “massive attack” on Kostyantynivka involving six strikes just after 10 am local time (0700 GMT).
The blast hit “16 apartment buildings, eight private residences, a kindergarten, an administrative building, three cars and a gas pipeline,” police said.
Liliya, a 19-year-old psychology student, stood outside her severely damaged high-rise block.
“I found out about this on the news. And when I was told about it and I saw that it was my area, I was just shocked,” Liliya said, as broken glass continued to rain down from windows.
“I’m very, very lucky that I wasn’t home at that moment,” she added, after deciding to stay with her boyfriend.
“Everything is bombed out. And I think it’s like that in every flat, in fact. Because it was such an impact that it was very hard for anything to stay unbroken.”
Nina, a pensioner, was looking at the damage to her ground-floor flat in a Soviet-era block. She was also not home when the missile struck.
“The internal doors and the front door were blown in. An internal partition wall has broken. There’s not a single window left,” she said.
Soldiers were examining the scene afterwards as well an armed man in civilian clothes.
Watching while holding a shopping bag, Sergiy, 61, said “the shock wave came all the way to us, about a kilometer away.”
Mortar fire also killed two people in the northeast Sumy region, Zelensky said.
“These are just a few examples of the dozens of bombings every day,” he continued.
“There is only one way to stop Russian terrorism and restore security to all our cities and communities. And this path is a military victory for Ukraine.”
Earlier Sunday, Zelensky also commemorated the first anniversary of the discovery of bodies of civilians killed in Bucha, a town near Kyiv that has become a symbol of the alleged atrocities carried out by Moscow during the conflict.
Russia has accused Ukraine and its allies of staging the scene.
“People of Ukraine! You have stopped the biggest force against humanity of our time,” Zelensky added in another post on Telegram, accompanied by photos of areas liberated a year ago when Russian troops retreated from around the Ukrainian capital.
“You have stopped a force that despises everything and wants to destroy everything that gives people meaning,” Zelensky said.
“We will liberate all our lands.”
Also Sunday, in St. Petersburg, a leading Russian military blogger and fervent defender of the military offensive in Ukraine was killed by a bomb attack in a cafe, investigators said.
Vladlen Tatarsky was reportedly killed after receiving a gift rigged with an explosive device, at an event organized by Cyber Front Z, which refers to itself on social media as “Russia’s information troops.”
Around two dozen other people were injured.
Earlier in the weekend, Russia on Saturday took over the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council despite outrage from Kyiv and Western nations that have imposed sanctions on Moscow.