The leader of a Russian mercenary group has said he will pull its fighters from Bakhmut after claiming to have captured the Ukrainian city.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk-Oblast region, had been captured by his private army on Saturday afternoon – a claim Ukraine continues to dispute.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar instead claimed Ukrainian forces have partly encircled the besieged eastern city along the flanks and still control a part of the city.
“Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy,” she wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “Therefore, the enemy has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls.”
Mr Prigozhin had earlier said on Telegraph that his soldiers would “completely inspect” Bakhmut and create the “necessary defence lines” before handing the city over to Russian soldiers in four days.
“We ourselves will go to field camps,” he added.
The mercenary leader posed with fighters on Saturday afternoon after claiming to have captured the city. Ukraine immediately denied the claim but admitted the situation in the Bakhmut was “critical”.
There was confusion on Sunday morning amid reports Mr Zelensky appeared to confirm Bakhmut had been captured while speaking at the G7 summit in Japan. But his spokesman later clarified that he did not say the city had fallen.
Speaking alongside US president Joe Biden at the G7 gathering in Hiroshima, the Ukrainian president said the Russians had destroyed “everything” in Bakhmut and there was “nothing” left.
“You have to understand that there is nothing,” he said. “For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin meanwhile hailed what he claimed was a victory for his forces, describing it as the “liberation” of Bakhmut in a statement on the Kremlin’s website.
During the final day of the three-day G7 summit on Sunday, Mr Biden announced a $375 million package of military aid, including artillery and armoured vehicles, for Ukraine.
He told Mr Zelensky that the US was doing all it could to strengthen Ukraine’s defence against Russia, assuring the Ukrainian leader that the United States was not going anywhere, and would have Ukraine’s back.
Other leaders of the G7 – the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada – echoed Mr Biden’s sentiments.
Mr Biden told G7 leaders Washington supports joint allied training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s warplanes, although Kyiv has not won commitments for delivery of the fighter jets.
The potential for such training on U.S.-made F-16s was a message to Russia that it should not expect to succeed in its invasion by prolonging conflict, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak said training would start this summer and Ukraine would get the air force it needed for the future.
With reporting from agencies