Fate of Ukraine's Soledar at stake as Wagner claims control

The fate of Soledar in eastern Ukraine was up in the air on Wednesday, with Russian mercenary group Wagner claiming to control the gateway town while the Kremlin cautioned against declaring victory prematurely.

The Russian defence ministry poured cold water on Wagner's declaration by saying fighting in the war-battered salt mining city was ongoing, and Kyiv's military said that Soledar "is and always will be Ukrainian."

Combat in the city and neighbouring Bakhmut is the "bloodiest" of the war so far, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak told AFP.

Both Moscow and Kyiv have said the battle for Soledar has been long and brutal, 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 some 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Bakhmut, a larger urban hub that Russia has been trying to seize for months.

The head of Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed in the early hours of Wednesday that his forces had "taken control of the whole territory of Soledar" while "urban battles" were fought in the city centre.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti 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.

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said that there was "heavy fighting" in Soledar but no breakthrough from Russian forces.

On the road between Bakhmut and the city of Slovyansk further west, a wounded Ukrainian soldier waiting to be evacuated said fighting in Soledar was the toughest his brigade has seen.

But "nobody is planning to give up the city," the 27-year-old, who goes by the nom de guerre Bober (Beaver), told AFP.

- 'Completely destroyed' -

The Kremlin had urged caution after Wagner's claim, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov warning against rushing to conclusions.

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

Analysts say that the competing statements point to infighting and a fractious Russian force that has been trying to capture the whole of 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.

Podolyak said he believes Russia is suffering "enormous" losses in the battle for the town but conceded the Ukrainian side was also seeing casualties.

Earlier this week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Soledar had been flattened by fighting. "Everything is completely destroyed," he said.

On Wednesday, Zelensky said he visited the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, near the border with EU member Poland, for a "coordination meeting".

He said on social media that "border protection" was discussed, including the situation on Ukraine's frontier with ex-Soviet Belarus in the north.

A close ally of Moscow, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use his country as a launchpad for their invasion in February.

- Poland willing to send tanks -

After Belarus announced the establishment of a joint force with Moscow in the autumn, there have been fears of a frontline opening in the north. The fighting is currently concentrated in the east and south.

In the southern region of Kherson on Wednesday, an exploding Russian shell started a fire at a maternity ward.

"A powerful blast wave knocked out windows in the children's ward and damaged one of the doctors' offices," regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevich said, adding that one employee was injured.

In the east, Russian strikes targeted Ukraine's second city Kharkiv on Tuesday, in the wake of a surprise visit by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Baerbock vowed further German support for Kyiv but her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, who accompanied her, said Berlin's refusal to send Kyiv battle tanks was costing lives.

Last week, French President 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 to Ukraine and brought with her a multi-million dollar financial aid package.

Separately, Poland's President Andrzej Duda said Wednesday Warsaw was ready to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Poland is willing to deliver the tanks "within an international coalition", Duda said during a visit to Lviv after meeting his Ukrainian and Lithuanian counterparts.

bur/as/jmm