The eastern Ukrainian town, known for its salt mines, was the center of days of fierce fighting.
The head of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group claims to have taken control of the salt mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, but uncertainty remains amid continued fighting in the city center.
Soledar, the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut, and Ukraine’s large eastern Donbas region have been the focus of days of intense fighting as Russia sees it as key to its campaign.
Conditions on the ground could not be verified and Ukrainian officials did not comment on the situation.
“Wagner units took control of the entire area of Soledar. A cauldron has been created in the center of the city, in which urban fighting is going on,” Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said late Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported.
“The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow,” added Prigogine. The group said in a telegram that the surrounded Ukrainian soldiers had been given an ultimatum to surrender by midnight (22:00 GMT).
Soledar is about 15 km (9 miles) from Bakhmut and its capture would have symbolic, military and commercial value for Russia.
Russia’s state-run RIA news agency later released a report saying the Wagner Group had taken over Soledar’s salt mines after a “fierce fight,” while Prigogine shared a photo of himself surrounded by his mercenaries.
Still, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, expressed alarm over Russia’s claims.
“Russian forces have not fully captured #Soledar despite false Russian claims that the city has fallen and #Bakhmut is at risk of an imminent encirclement,” it said in a Twitter thread, with Prigogine himself admitting that urban warfare was continuing.
A heavy cost
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not mention the Soledar control in his regular video address on Tuesday evening, as he repeated his call for more Western arms, saying Russia was looking to intensify its military operations. He did not give details.
But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry tweeted late Tuesday that “even after suffering massive losses, Russia is still frantically trying to capture Soledar — home to Europe’s largest salt mine.”
Ukraine first held its forces in Soledar, withstanding wave after wave of attacks by Russian forces seeking their first battlefield victory in months.
The capture of Soledar was Russia’s most substantial gain since August after a series of humiliating retreats in the northeast and south in the second half of 2022.
But any victory in Bakhmut will come at a huge cost, with forces on both sides suffering heavy losses in some of the fiercest fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year.
Kyiv has released images in recent days showing many Russian soldiers dead in mud fields.
Moscow said the capture of Bakhmut was a crucial step towards taking full control of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, one of the four provinces it claimed two months ago.