March 8 (UPI) — Russian mercenary group Wagner and Ukrainian officials presented conflicting reports Wednesday about the status of the eastern city of Bakhmut, which has become the latest target of Moscow’s invasion.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed in a Telegram post that his forces have occupied “the entire eastern part of Bakhmut.”
“Everything east of the Bakhmutka River is completely under the control of the Wagner PMC,” Prigozhin’s press agency said.
But Ukrainian officials said their forces repelled 72 assaults on the area and that more than 100 Russian soldiers have been killed over the course of 24 hours.
“In connection with the heavy losses of the Wagnerians, they were reinforced by units of airborne troops, mechanized units of airborne troops, mechanized units and artillery and aviation,” military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatyi said on Ukrainian television.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday that Bakhmut could fall within days.
“Over the last weeks and months, we have seen fierce fighting in and around Bakhmut, and what we see is that Russia is storming in more troops, more forces and what Russia lacks in quality, they try to make up in quantity,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.
“They have suffered big losses, but at the same time, we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that his nation’s forces would continue to defend Bakhmut against Russian advances. Foreign observers downplayed the importance of holding the position, with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying “it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value.”
Zelensky defended the reinforcement of Bakhmut in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“We understand that after Bakhmut, they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk. It would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” Zelensky said.