Ukraine war: Bakhmut 'practically surrounded', claims Russian paramilitary Wagner group

The Russian paramilitary group Wagner, whose men are on the front lines in Ukraine, claimed on Friday to have "practically surrounded" Bakhmut, a strategically important city in the east, and called on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to sound the withdrawal of his troops.

The battle for Bakhmut, an industrial city of disputed strategic importance, has been going on since the summer and has led to great destruction and heavy losses on both sides.

The city has become a symbol, as it has been the epicentre of fighting between Russians and Ukrainians for months.

In recent weeks, Russian forces had advanced north and south of Bakhmut, cutting off three of the four Ukrainian supply routes and making the defenders' position increasingly precarious.

"Wagner units have practically surrounded Bakhmut, there is only one road left" to get out, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin stressed on Friday in a video posted on Telegram by his press service.

Dressed in combat gear and speaking as a loud explosion could be heard in the distance, Prigozhin called on Zelenskyy -- who had vowed to defend Bakhmut "as long as possible" -- to order Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the city.

"Give them a chance to leave the city, it is practically surrounded," he said.

Situation 'extremely tense'

Volodymyr Zelenskyy had visited Bakhmut in December and had offered the US Congress, during his visit to Washington shortly thereafter, a Ukrainian flag from that part of the front.

The Ukrainian military command admitted on Tuesday that the situation in Bakhmut was "extremely tense" in the face of an attempted Russian breakthrough.

Zelenskyy noted the same day an increase in "the intensity of fighting" around the city, which had some 70,000 inhabitants before the war. There are now 4,500 inhabitants, despite the danger, according to local authorities.

The Ukrainian General Staff did not give any details on the situation in Bakhmut on Friday, only reporting that the army had repelled 85 Russian attacks across the frontline in the last 24 hours.

On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Ukrainian army's Eastern Command, Sergei Cherevaty, denied to AFP that a withdrawal from Bakhmut was underway.

Ukrainian soldiers recently interviewed by AFP on the spot tried, for some, to remain optimistic. Others reported a lack of men, ammunition, and artillery support.

Kupiansk evacuation order

Ukraine on Thursday ordered vulnerable people to evacuate the city of Kupiansk on the northeastern front, which is at risk of being taken over by Russian forces, the military administration announced.

"The mandatory evacuation of families with children and residents with reduced mobility has begun in the community of Kupiansk due to the ongoing shelling of the territory by Russian forces," the military administration of Kharkiv region said.

The governor of Kharkiv region Oleg Synegubov said that several localities, including Kupiansk, have been shelled with multiple rocket launchers by Russian forces.

Kupiansk, about 100 km from Kharkiv, had a population of about 30,000 before the war. It was taken by the Russians in the first days of the invasion, a year ago. The Ukrainians recaptured the city in September after a lightning counter-offensive.

But Moscow's forces, bolstered by the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of reservists in Russia, have returned to attack in this area, raising fears among many residents.