LATEST: Everything We Know About What’s Happening in Soledar Right Now
The head of Russia's mercenary group Wagner has claimed his fighters have taken control of the city of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, though some “urban battles” were still being fought.
"Wagner units have taken control of the whole territory of Soledar.” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio message posted on Telegram late on Tuesday Jan 10.
He added: “A cauldron has been formed in the center of the city in which urban fighting is going on. The number of prisoners taken will be announced tomorrow.”
Prigozhin’s claim has not been independently verified and the Ukrainian military has denied the reports.
"The Russians say that Soledar is under their control, this is not true. Wait for the details in the General Staff report," the spokesman of the Eastern Defense Forces of Ukraine said on Wednesday morning.
Alongside his message, tPrigozhin published a photo of himself in military uniform surrounded by posing fighters, but did not say where it was taken.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published another photograph of Prigozhin with armed fighters, saying it had been taken in the salt mines of Soledar.
Soledar and the nearby city of Bakhmut have seen some of the most intense fighting in the war in recent weeks, with both sides taking heavy losses.
Ukraine previously said its army was holding out in Soledar, a salt mining town in the Donetsk region around 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Bakhmut, which Russia has been trying to seize for months.
In a post on Telegram posted a few hours before Prigozhin's claim, Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar said "the enemy does not pay attention to the large losses of its personnel and continues to actively storm".
"The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters. Our fighters are defending bravely."
If Wagner is in control of Soledar, it would mark the first major Russian battlefield success for several months.
Both sides have said battles for Soledar have been bloody and intense. Earlier this week, President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed “the whole land in Soledar is covered with corpses of the invaders,” adding “everything is completely destroyed.”
Prigozhin has claimed that he wants to seize Soledar and the nearby city of Bakhmut because of the strategic opportunity presented by the cavernous salt mines underneath the area which, pre-war, were used to host concerts and sporting events.
“The cherry on the cake is the system of Soledar and Bakhmut mines, which is actually a network of underground cities,” he said on Telegram on Saturday.
“It not only [has the ability to hold] a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about.”
Prigozhin also claimed the caves hold vast stockpiles of weapons from World War I, but this has been disputed.
U.S. officials believe he’s simply motivated by the potential financial benefit of taking control of the mines which would be in line with Wagner’s modus operandi in other conflicts it has participated in.
The Institute for the Study of War also notes that some Russian milbloggers have questioned the wisdom of losing so many men in an attritional battle with Ukraine, saying that even taking Soledar and Bakhmut would be a strategic defeat in the context of so many losses.
U.S. officials said last week that out of a force of nearly 50,000 Wagner mercenaries, over 4,100 have been killed and 10,000 wounded in Ukraine. Over 1,000 of those killed died between late November and early December near Bakhmut.
Prigozhin said that Soledar has been stormed “exclusively” by Wagner units.
His and Wagner's influence in Russia has risen significantly since the Kremlin sent troops to Ukraine in February last year.
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