By Darya Tarasova, Sugam Pokharel, Thom Poole and Rob Picheta, CNN
(CNN) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Bakhmut is not occupied by Russia as of Sunday and Ukrainian soldiers remain there, a day after Russia claimed the fiercely contested city’s complete capture.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces (AFU) said they were continuing to counter Russia in the city, and that they were advancing in the suburbs, making it “very difficult for the enemy to remain in Bakhmut.”
On Saturday the chief of the mercenary Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed to have captured Bakhmut after months of brutal fighting, saying he would hand it over to Russia later in May,
Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his congratulations for “the completion of the operation to liberate Artemovsk,” Russian state news agency TASS reported the Kremlin as saying, using the Soviet-Russian name for Bakhmut.
CNN is unable to verify either side’s battlefield claims.
If confirmed, the capture of Bakhmut would mark Russia’s first gain in months, but the city’s symbolism always outweighed its strategic importance.
Moscow has thrown huge amounts of manpower, weaponry and attention toward the city but largely failed to break down a stubborn Ukrainian resistance that had outlasted most expectations.
Battle that became a ‘meat grinder’
Bakhmut sits toward the northeast of the Donetsk region, about 13 miles from the Luhansk region, and has long been a target for Russian forces. Since last summer the city has been a stone’s throw from the front lines.
Donbas – the vast, industrial expanse of land in Ukraine’s east, encompassing the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – has been the primary focus of Russia’s war effort since last spring, after its initial lunge toward Kyiv and central Ukraine failed.
The battle has been compared to the kind of fighting seen in World War One, with soldiers fighting in a hellish landscape of mud and trenches, trees and buildings mangled by artillery fire.
While Russian forces have continued their slow street-by-street advance in Bakhmut for many months, over the past two weeks Ukrainian forces have managed to re-capture small pockets of territory held by Russian troops to the northwest and southwest of the city.
Russian forces, bolstered by members of the Wagner mercenary group, have taken heavy losses trying to capture the city.
There are no official casualty figures, but earlier this year a NATO source told CNN they estimated that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russia lost five.
The battle has also highlighted an extraordinary rift among Russian forces, with Prigozhin at one point accusing a Russian brigade of abandoning its position in the city and railing several times at the Defense Ministry over a lack of ammunition.
Prigozhin, a former catering boss who has grown in prominence throughout the war, compared the battlefield to a “meat grinder.”
Bakhmut’s fall would be an undoubted boost to Prigozhin, who recently announced his men would pull out entirely because dwindling ammunition supplies and mounting losses meant there was “nothing left to grind the meat with.”
Over the early part of 2023, the routes into Bakhmut had gradually come under the control of Russian forces and the battle for the city turned into an inch-by-inch grind, with Ukrainian forces repelling dozens of assaults each day.
Rather than drive directly toward the city center, Wagner troops sought to encircle the city in a wide arc from the north.
In January they claimed the nearby town of Soledar, and later took a string of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut, making Ukraine’s defense of the city increasingly perilous.
But even as Moscow’s troops closed in and most residents fled through dangerous evacuation corridors, a small group of Ukrainian civilians remained in the ruined city. Before the war, around 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut, a city once famous for its sparkling wine.
As of March, the population stood at less than 4,000 and most of the once thriving city has been reduced to ashes and rubble.
In his comments at the G7, Zelensky said pictures of ruined Hiroshima he has seen on his visit to the Japanese city “really remind” him of Bakhmut.
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