The leader of the Wagner mercenary group in Russia has announced that its forces have begun withdrawing from the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prigozhin has pledged to hand over control of the city to the Russian army by 1 June, but Kyiv asserts that it still administers portions of the city.
He stated that his forces were prepared to return should the Russian regular army prove incapable of handling the situation.
The battle for the city was the bloodiest and longest of the entire conflict.
Wagner mercenaries commanded the fighting there for the Russian side, and Mr. Prigozhin stated this week that 20,000 of their soldiers had been killed in Bakhmut.
“We are withdrawing units from Bakhmut today,” said Mr. Prigozhin in a Telegram video from the destroyed city.
BBC Verify has geolocated the video to a region close to a pharmacy in eastern Bakhmut.
Mr. Prigozhin, who claimed the city on Saturday, orders his soldiers to leave ammunition for the Russian army. Some Wagner combatants will remain behind to assist Russian troops, he adds.
“When the military is in a difficult situation, they will rise to the occasion,” he says. Before warning two fighters not to “bully the military.”
The Wagner leader has repeatedly criticized senior Russian military officials for failing to support his forces. Last month, he even threatened to withdraw his forces from the city if they were not supplied with vital ammunition.
Ukraine has not conceded that Bakhmut has fallen, despite Wagner’s assertions to be handing over the city.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister, said Thursday that Ukrainian forces hold part of Litak, southwest of the city.
“The adversary has substituted regular army troops for Wagner units in the suburbs. Wagner forces are still present within the city limits,” she wrote on Telegram.
Analysts say Russia will celebrate the seizure of Bakhmut after the longest struggle of the Ukraine conflict.
Wagner mercenaries have focused their efforts on the city for months, and their relentless, costly strategy of sending in waves of men appears to have eroded Kyiv’s resistance incrementally.
In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, led by Mr. Prigozhin’s private army.
He recruited thousands of convicted convicts from prison to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.
Mr. Prigozhin stated this week that approximately half of the 20,000 Wagner fighters who perished in Bakhmut were convicted criminals.
The US estimates earlier this month that the battle for Bakhmut killed over 20,000 Russian soldiers and wounded 80,000.
The acquisition of Bakhmut would bring Russia a step closer to its objective of controlling the entire Donetsk region, one of four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine annexed by Russia in September following widely condemned sham referendums.
Nonetheless, when Russia fought valiantly to claim the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk during the summer of 2014, Ukraine quickly reclaimed vast tracts of territory elsewhere.
Before the invasion, approximately 70,000 people were living in Bakhmut, but only a few thousand remain in the devastated city, which was once renowned for its salt and gypsum mining and enormous winery.