Ukraine general ‘visits near Bakhmut’ amid rival claims

Ukrainian authorities claim their forces are continuing their advance along the flanks of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian authorities claim their forces are continuing their advance along the flanks of Bakhmut. Photo: AAP

Ukraine says its forces are still advancing around the edges of Bakhmut, aiming to encircle the ruined city after Russian officials congratulated the Wagner private army and regular troops for capturing it.

Russia said on Saturday it had completely taken the city, which, if confirmed, would mark an end to the longest and bloodiest battle of the 15-month war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his regular troops and the Wagner group.

On Sunday, however, a top Ukrainian general said it still controlled what he accepted was an “insignificant” part of Bakhmut, although that would allow them to enter the city when the situation changed.

General Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a Telegram post that Ukrainian troops were advancing on Russian forces in the suburbs and were getting closer to a “tactical encirclement” of the city, formerly home to 70,000 people.

General Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Sunday he had visited front-line positions near Bakhmut and thanked troops defending the area.

General Syrskyi’s assertion that Ukrainian forces were continuing their advance along the flanks of the city was echoed by Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar.

“Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy… the enemy has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls,” Ms Maliar said on Telegram.

Ms Maliar added Ukrainian troops were still defending industrial and infrastructure facilities and had claimed part of the overlooking heights.

Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have made their most rapid gains for six months on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks, with Russia acknowledging some setbacks for its troops.

Ukraine says its aim has been to draw Russian forces from elsewhere on the front into the city, to inflict high casualties there and weaken Russia’s defensive line elsewhere ahead of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Mr Putin on Sunday congratulated the Wagner mercenary force and Russian troops for taking the city while the founder of Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin played down the role of the regular Russian army and in a voice message on Telegram, said: “practically no one from the army helped us”.

Taking Bakhmut – which Russia refers to by its Soviet-era name of Artyomovsk – would represent Russia’s first big victory in the conflict in more than 10 months.

The battle for Bakhmut has shown a deepening split between Wagner, which has recruited thousands of convicts from Russian prisons, and the regular Russian military.

Later on Sunday, Mr Prigozhin said in an audio message on Telegram that his group’s job was done and his forces would leave the conflict zone within days.

“Wagner today captured no territory. We have captured all the territory we promised to capture, right up to the last centimetre,” he said.

“As we stated yesterday. We are handing over our positions to [Russia’s] Defence Ministry and on the 25th [of May] we are leaving the conflict zone.”

The Russian defence ministry said its forces had also destroyed a road bridge previously used by Ukrainian forces to reinforce Bakhmut as well as a Ukrainian ammunition warehouse.

Meanwhile, G7 leaders said they would not back down from supporting Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky, who held a private meeting with US President Joe Biden in Hiroshima, said he was confident Ukraine would receive F-16 fighter jets from its allies after months of lobbying for the planes.

Mr Biden said F-16s would not have helped Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut but could “make a big difference in terms of being able to deal with what is coming down the road”.

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