KYIV: Fierce fighting continued in and around Bakhmut as Kyiv mocked Russian claims to have captured the administrative center of the eastern Ukrainian city, saying its foes had raised a victory flag over “some kind of toilet.”
The battle for the mining city and logistics hub of Bakhmut has been one of the bloodiest of the conflict, now in its second year, with many casualties on both sides and the city largely destroyed by bombardments.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary force spearheading the siege, said on Sunday his troops had raised a Russian flag on the city-center administrative building even though Ukrainian soldiers still held some western positions.
“From a legal point of view, Bakhmut has been taken,” said Prigozhin, who has previously made premature claims.
But Ukraine’s military said fighting was still raging around the city council building, as well as in other nearby towns.
“Bakhmut is Ukrainian and they have not captured anything and are very far from doing that,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the eastern military command, told Reuters.
“They raised the flag over some kind of toilet. They attached it to the side of who knows what, hung their rag and said they had captured the city. Well good, let them think they’ve taken it,” Cherevatyi added by telephone.
The Ukrainian armed forces General Staff said in an evening statement 45 enemy attacks had been repelled in total in the last 24 hours, with Bakhmut at the “epicenter of operations” along with the cities of Avdiivka and Maryinka further south.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Lying on the edge of a chunk of Donetsk province under Russian control, Bakhmut had a population of 70,000 before Moscow invaded Ukraine in February last year.
Russian forces, bogged down in a war of attrition after a series of setbacks, are seeking a victory from their winter offensive but have suffered huge casualties around Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military commanders have said their own counteroffensive — backed by newly delivered Western tanks and other hardware — is not far off but have stressed the importance of holding Bakhmut and inflicting losses in the meantime.
“People are ready for the counteroffensive, all we are waiting for is marching orders and details on which direction we should go forward on — Bakhmut, Soledar or anywhere else,” said a 35-year-old soldier of a tank brigade near Bakhmut, who used the nom-de-guerre Polyot.
Russian drones struck the Black Sea port of Odesa and there had been some damage from air defenses, a regional military official said early on Tuesday, without providing details.
The governor of Bryansk region in southern Russia, Alexander Bogomaz, writing on Telegram, said a Ukrainian drone launched an attack near the town of Sevsk just over the border, firing an explosive device at an interior ministry building. There were no injuries and emergency services were working at the site.
’DRIVING A WEDGE’
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to rid it of Nazis.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed. Russia has destroyed Ukrainian cities and forced millions of people to flee their homes, and it claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine.
The West calls the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country and has provided Kyiv with weapons while seeking to punish Russia with sanctions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of trying to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and attempting to wreck Russia’s planned summit with African countries. He also said the European Union’s hostile stance toward Moscow meant it had “lost” Russia.
“In reply to hostile steps, we will act in a tough manner if necessary, based on Russia’s national interests and the principles of reciprocity accepted in diplomatic practice,” Lavrov told the Argumenty i Fakty news website.
Western pressure on Russia may increase with Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, joining NATO on Tuesday.
In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Russia would strengthen military capacity in its western and northwestern regions, state-owned news agency RIA reported.
“In the event that the forces and resources of other NATO members are deployed in Finland, we will take additional steps to reliably ensure Russia’s military security,” he told RIA.