Russia's Prigozhin trumpets Wagner recruitment drive after heavy Bakhmut losses
By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Friday his Wagner private army had opened recruitment centres in 42 cities as he seeks to replenish its ranks after heavy losses in fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
In an upbeat audio message, Prigozhin said new fighters were coming forward but gave no indication of the numbers involved. He also said ammunition supplies had improved, but remained a concern.
"In spite of the colossal resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces, we will go forward," he said.
"Despite the sticks in the wheels that are thrown at us at every step, we will overcome this together."
Wagner has led some of the fiercest fighting in Russia's attempt to take Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian army is still holding out after more than seven months of attritional warfare - a bloody campaign that Prigozhin calls "the meat grinder".
In a separate post on social media on Friday Prigozhin said Ukraine was preparing a counteroffensive near Bakhmut, adding: "Of course we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening."
Prigozhin has acknowledged taking severe losses, at one point posting a gruesome photo of lines of Wagner corpses, and has waged a public feud with Russian military bosses over shortages of ammunition.
In January, the United States assessed that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts Prigozhin had recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a free pardon if they survived six months. In February, however, he said he was no longer being allowed to hire convicts.
Ukrainian officials have claimed that nearly 30,000 of Wagner's fighters have deserted or been killed or wounded, a figure that could not be independently verified.
In another audio message on Friday, Prigozhin said he had thanked the government for a "heroic" increase in production of ammunition but said he was still worried about shortages for his fighters and the Russian army as a whole.
Prigozhin said his men had been "blown away" by the fact they had started to receive ammunition deliveries labelled as produced in 2023. He said ammunition was now being produced "in huge quantities, which cover all the necessary needs".
But he then appeared to contradict himself, saying: "I am worried about ammunition and shell shortages not only for the Wagner private military company but for all units of the Russian army."
(Additional reporting by Caleb DavisEditing by Gareth Jones)