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Wagner group signals it will stay in Bakhmut after Prigozhin threatened to pull forces

2023-05-07T12:19:27Z

Ukrainian servicemen of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade ‘Edelweiss’ fire a D-30 howitzer towards Russian troops at a position in a front line, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near the town of Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine May 6, 2023. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group appeared on Sunday to ditch plans to withdraw from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, saying they had been promised more arms by Moscow and suggesting they may keep up their assault on what Russia sees a stepping stone to other cities in the Donbas region.

Elsewhere, Russian missiles targeted an industrial site in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine, while Ukrainian and Russian media reported multiple explosions across Russian-occupied Crimea. Russia’s defence ministry said its air defences had detected and destroyed 22 Ukrainian drones over the Black Sea overnight.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had said on Friday that his fighters, who have spearheaded a brutal months-long assault on Bakhmut, would pull out after being starved of ammunition and suffering “useless and unjustified” losses as a result.

But in an audio message posted on his Telegram channel on Sunday, he said: “We have been promised as much ammunition and weapons as we need to continue further operations. We have been promised that everything needed to prevent the enemy from cutting us off (from supplies) will be deployed.”

A spokesman for Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Prigozhin’s latest statement.

Russian officials have repeatedly sought to allay concerns that their forces on the frontline have not received adequate supplies. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday, referring to the Russian army as a whole, that they had “received the sufficient amount of ammunition” to effectively inflict damage on enemy forces.

On the Ukrainian side, Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, said in response to Reuters questions about Prigozhin’s comments that Russian forces have “more than enough” ammunition.

He said Prigozhin’s comments are aimed at distracting from the heavy losses Wagner has taken by throwing so many troops into battle.

“Four hundred eighty-nine artillery strikes over the past 24 hours in the area around Bakhmut – is that an ammunition hunger?”

Ukraine has routinely dismissed Prigozhin’s comments in the past as being aimed at a Russian audience and not reflecting reality.

Prigozhin’s threat to pull out of Bakhmut highlights the pressure Russian forces are under as Ukraine makes its final preparations for a counter-offensive backed by thousands of Western-donated armoured vehicles and freshly trained troops.

The battle for Bakhmut has been the most intense of the conflict, costing thousands of lives on both sides in months of grinding warfare.

Ukrainian troops have been pushed back in recent weeks but have clung on in the city to inflict as many Russian losses as possible ahead of Kyiv’s planned big push against the invading forces along the 1,000-km (620-mile) front line.

In Mykolaiv, governor Vitaliy Kim said in a social media post that a building and territory belonging to an unspecified enterprise were damaged overnight after Russian long-range bombers targeted his southern region with five Kh-22 cruise missiles.

Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat told local television on Sunday morning that a total of six of those missiles had been fired at Ukraine overnight but that none had hit their targets.

In the eastern Kharkiv region, at least five people were injured after an S-300 missile struck a car park in the city of Balakliya, said governor Oleh Synyehubov.

Russian forces have stepped up their long-range missile strikes on civilian and infrastructure targets in recent days.

Air raid alerts blared for several hours overnight into early Sunday over roughly two-thirds of Ukraine, extending from Kyiv and regions to the west of the capital through to the entire east and south.

Officials in Kyiv and the southeastern Dnipropetrovsk region also reported shooting down a reconnaissance and attack drone in the early hours, respectively.

The overnight strikes coincided with Ukrainian and Russian media reports of multiple explosions across Russian-occupied Crimea.

Baza, a Telegram channel with links to Russia’s law enforcement agencies, reported that Ukraine sent a series of drones over the peninsula, with Russian air defence shooting down at least one over the port of Sevastopol.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the reports.

Strikes on Russian-held targets have intensified in the past two weeks, especially in Crimea. Ukraine, without confirming any role in those attacks, says destroying enemy infrastructure is preparation for a planned ground assault.

In the southern city of Kherson, which Ukraine liberated last November but which has been under constant Russian attack, six people were killed over the past 24 hours in a variety of strikes, said governor Oleksandr Prokudin.