- The mercenary chief explains his rationale for a fierce battle
- He says he wants to take control of a huge underground complex
- He says tanks and troops can move there
LONDON (Reuters) – The founder of Russia’s largest mercenary group said on Saturday he wanted his forces and the regular Russian army to take control of the small city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine because it had “underground cities” to take over. troops and tanks.
The more than five months of sustained Russian pressure to try and capture Bakhmut baffled some Western military analysts who said the heavy losses suffered by the Russian side and the fact that Ukraine had built defensive lines to retreat so close meant any Russian victory there. If that happens, it will be very expensive.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian mercenary group Wagner fighting in the Battle of Bakhmut, detailed on Saturday why he thought his capture would be important.
“The cherry on the cake is the Soledar and Bakhmut mine system, which is actually a network of underground cities. Not only (it has the ability to accommodate) a large group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move.”
Prigozhin, who is likely to see his political capital in Moscow increase if Bakhmut falls to Russia given Wagner’s role in the fighting there, said weapons stocks had been stored in underground complexes since World War One.
His comments referred to the massive salt and other mines in the area that contained more than 100 miles of tunnels and a vast underground room that hosted football matches and classical music concerts in quieter times.
A White House official said Thursday that Washington believes Prigozhin wanted to take control of the salt and gypsum mines in the region for commercial reasons. He made no mention of their alleged underground military use.
Sanctioned in the West, Prigozhin pointed to other advantages of capturing Bakhmut, calling it a “serious logistics center” with unique defensive fortifications.
He made the comments on his press service’s Telegram channel as shellfire echoed through the near-deserted streets of Bakhmut on Saturday despite Russia declaring a ceasefire in observance of Orthodox Christmas, something Kyiv dismissed as a ruse.
Bakhmut, which Russia calls Artyomovsk, is the focus of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin made his comments as another Telegram channel linked to Wagner claimed that Russia had seized a strategically important settlement on the outskirts of Bakhmut.
Reuters could not independently verify this assertion.
Earlier on Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that the town of Solidar, near Bakhmut, which includes a salt mine, was still under Ukrainian control, despite what he described as fierce Russian attacks.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborne) Editing by Christina Fincher
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