Sunday, 29 January, 2023

Fate of Ukraine’s Soledar unclear as Wagner claims control

Fate of Ukraine’s Soledar unclear as Wagner claims control

KRAMATORSK: The fate of Soledar in east Ukraine was unclear on Wednesday, with Russian mercenary group Wagner claiming to control the gateway town while the Kremlin cautioned against declaring victory prematurely, reports AFP.

The Russian defence ministry poured cold water on Wagner's claims saying fighting in the war-battered salt mining city was ongoing and Kyiv denied any Russian takeover.

Both Moscow and Kyiv have said the battle for Soledar has been long and bloody, and its fall to Moscow's forces would mark Russia's first significant territorial gain in Ukraine in months.

The town in the eastern Donetsk region lies 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Bakhmut, a larger urban hub that Russia has been trying to seize for months.

The head of Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed in the early hours of Wednesday that his forces had "taken control of the whole territory of Soledar".

"Urban battles are being fought in the city centre," he added.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti meanwhile published a photo of Prigozhin with armed fighters, saying it was taken in the salt mines of Soledar.

But the Ukrainian military said the pictures were taken elsewhere and that: "Soledar was, is and will be Ukrainian".

The Kremlin urged caution on Wagner's claim with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters it was better to "not rush".

"Let's wait for official announcements," he said.

"Our guys are sparing no thought for their lives to give these tactical successes," he added.

The Russian defence ministry said the fierce battle was ongoing and Russian "assault squads are fighting in the city".

The competing statements point to a fractious Russian force that has been trying to capture the whole of the Ukraine's eastern Donbas region since failing to capture Kyiv last year.

Prigozhin this week claimed Soledar had been stormed "exclusively" by Wagner units and even praised Ukrainian forces for fiercely defending their territory.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said there was a "difficult situation" in the Donetsk region in his daily night address on Tuesday. He praised the "bravery" of Ukrainian soldiers defending Soledar.

Earlier this week he said Soledar had been flattened by fighting: "Everything is completely destroyed."

"Even after suffering colossal losses, Russia is still maniacally trying to seize Soledar," Kyiv's defence ministry said late on Tuesday.

The UK said Tuesday that Moscow's forces were "likely in control" of Soledar.

The Wagner claim in Soledar came hours after late night Russian strikes on Kharkiv further north, in the wake of a surprise visit by Germany's foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

Kharkiv has faced heavy bombardment during the war, but the frontline has moved east since a Ukrainian counter-offensive last year retook territory from Russian forces.

Baerbock vowed further German support for Kyiv on her unannounced trip.

But her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, who accompanied her, said Berlin's refusal to send Kyiv battle tanks was costing lives.

The "longer it takes to make the decision, the more people will die", Kuleba said.

Last week, France's Emmanuel Macron promised Zelensky that Paris would send French-made light tanks to Kyiv. This would make France the first Western country to deliver tanks to Ukraine.

The move has put pressure on Germany.

Baerbock stressed that Germany will keep supplying weapons "that Ukraine needs in order to free its citizens who are still suffering under the terror of Russian occupation".

Baerbock brought with her a "further help package", of power generators, 20 million euros ($21 million) for de-mining and 20 million euros as financial help for the Starlink project ensuring internet access in the country.

Zelensky on Tuesday also said he had revoked the citizenship of Viktor Medvedchuk, once seen as Russian leader Vladimir Putin's top ally in Kyiv.

Ukrainian tycoon Medvedchuk was captured in April last year by Ukraine's special services, after fleeing home arrest when Russia launched its offensive.

The super-rich powerbroker -- once dubbed the "dark prince" of Ukrainian politics -- was accused of high treason and attempting to steal natural resources from Russia-annexed Crimea and of handing Ukrainian military secrets to Moscow.