Defiant Zelenskyy insists Bakhmut 'not occupied' by Russia after Putin-backed mercenary group claims control

21 May 2023, 13:45 | Updated: 22 May 2023, 07:55

President Zelenskyy has denied Bakhmut has completely fallen to Russia amid heavy fighting
President Zelenskyy has denied Bakhmut has completely fallen to Russia amid heavy fighting. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Will Taylor

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has insisted Bakhmut "is not occupied" by Russia, after Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin earlier claimed victory in the eastern Ukrainian city.

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Speaking at the G7 summit in Japan today, Ukraine's president dismissed claims from the notorious paramilitary group, which has thrown its men into the meat grinder in a desperate, months-long push to take it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the claimed capture of the city, which has effectively destroyed it and likely cost thousands of casualties on both sides, as a "liberation".

But even as the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary band tried to claim victory, showing off Wagner and Russian flags in the city, Ukraine has insisted the fight is not over yet.

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Mr Zelenskyy said that "as of today" the city is not occupied. He added that there are "no two or three interpretations of those words", following confusion over earlier remarks he made on the city's status.

Asked on Sunday if Russia had taken the city, Mr Zelenskyy replied "I think no", but said he wasn't able to share further information.

"We are not throwing people [away] to die," The Ukrainian leader said.

President Zelenskyy denied Russia has taken Bakhmut completely
President Zelenskyy denied Russia has taken Bakhmut completely. Picture: Alamy

"People are the treasure. I clearly understand what is happening in Bakhmut. I cannot share with you the technical details of what is happening with our warriors."

He earlier said Russia has "destroyed everything" - similar to how it tried to take Mariupol but then got bogged down in a brutal siege that saw it level much of the city.

Heavy fighting continues to rage in Bakhmut, Ukraine has said.

Deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar claimed there is a "semi-encirclement" of Russian forces in Bakhmut, and that the invaders have lost "part of the dominant heights around the city".

"That is, the advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, greatly complicates the enemy's presence in Bakhmut," she said.

Read more: 'Disposable' Russian troops plied with drugs then unleashed in suicide missions against Ukraine in brutal new tactics

Intense fighting has raged at Bakhmut
Intense fighting has raged at Bakhmut. Picture: Alamy

A spokesperson for Ukraine's Eastern Group of Forces said there are still military fortifications in the south-west of the city - even after eight months of Russia's attempt to capture it.

Putin had earlier congratulated "Wagner assault detachments, as well as all servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces units, who provided them with the necessary support and flank protection, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk".

That is the old Soviet name for Bakhmut, which was renamed as part of a de-communisation process.

Putin notably name-checked Wagner first in that statement to Russian news agencies.

Read more: Head of Russia's Wagner group claims full control of Bakhmut as Ukraine says 'fighting still going on'

Its leader, Prigozhin, is seen by some observers as a potential challenger for the leadership of Russia in the future.

He has been a prominent commentator, promoting Wagner's efforts to the world and taking aim at the regular Russian military and its commanders for failures in frequent videos from the area.

Notably, he has avoided direct criticism of Mr Putin.

Ukraine is widely expected to launch a major counter-offensive, having been equipped with more Western equipment, though it is unclear where on the front line that will start.

Mr Zelenskyy received a big boost over the weekend when the US agreed to permit countries to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

Countries will begin training up Ukrainian pilots on the platform ahead of any deployment.

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