The eastern Ukrainian town famous for its salt mines has been the epicenter of days of fierce fighting.
The head of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group has claimed to have taken control of the salt-mining town of Solidar in eastern Ukraine, but the mystery remains amid ongoing battles in the city centre.
Solidar has been the focus of days of intense fighting as Russia sees it as key to its campaign for the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut and Ukraine’s larger eastern region of Donbass.
It was not possible to verify the situation on the ground and Ukrainian officials did not comment on the situation.
Wagner’s units controlled the entire territory of Solidar. “A cauldron has been formed in the city center where urban fighting takes place,” said Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian news agencies reported late Tuesday.
“The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow,” Prigozhin added. The group said via Telegram that the trapped Ukrainian soldiers had been warned before midnight (22:00 GMT).
Solidar is about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Bakhmut, and its capture would have symbolic, military, and commercial value for Russia.
Russia’s state media agency later issued a report saying that the Wagner Group had seized the salt mines at Solidar after “heavy fighting”, while Prigozhin posted a picture of himself surrounded by his mercenaries in what he said was one of the mines.
However, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has expressed caution about the Russian allegations.
“#Soledar has not been completely captured by Russian forces despite false Russian claims that the city has fallen and #Bakhmut risks imminent encirclement,” she said in a tweet, noting that Prigozhin himself acknowledged that urban warfare continues.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made no mention of the control of Solidar in his usual video address Tuesday night when he reiterated his call for more Western arms, saying Russia was looking to step up its military campaign. He did not elaborate.
But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry tweeted late Tuesday: “Even after suffering huge losses, Russia is still madly trying to capture Solidar – home to Europe’s largest salt mine.”
Ukraine said earlier that its forces are still holding on to their positions in Solidar, fending off attacks followed by wave after wave of Russian forces seeking their first victory on the battlefield in months.
The capture of Solidar would be Russia’s biggest gain since August, after a series of humiliating retreats in the northeast and south in the second half of 2022.
But any victory at Bakhmut would come at a heavy cost, as forces on both sides suffered heavy losses in some of the fiercest battles since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year.
Kyiv has released photographs in recent days showing what it says were many Russian soldiers killed in the muddy fields.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would be a decisive step toward full control of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, one of four provinces it claimed it annexed two months ago.
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