Russia claims Soledar capture, Zelenskiy mocks nod to Wagner role
- Soledar has long been focus of heavy fighting
- Ukraine denies Russian claim to have taken town
- Soledar would be Russia's first big gain since July
- US, Ukraine have played down its strategic value
Jan 13 (Reuters) - Russia said on Friday that its forces had taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, claiming to have made its first big battlefield gain after half a year of military setbacks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said later that the fighting for Soledar and other eastern towns and cities was continuing.
Ukraine's eastern military command had denied Russia controlled Soledar.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the situation in the town, which has become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the 10-month war.
Russia's defence ministry said its forces had captured Soledar on Thursday evening, allowing them potentially to cut off Ukrainian supply routes to the city of Bakhmut, southwest of Soledar, and trap remaining Ukrainian forces there.
In its statement, the ministry credited the town's seizure to Russian troops and aviation without mentioning the role of the Wagner mercenary group.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has harshly criticized the failings of the regular army, issued a premature claim earlier this week that Soledar had fallen, and said the fighting there was exclusively being waged by his men.
In comments issued through his press service on Friday, and apparently aimed at Russia's defence establishment, Prigozhin complained about "infighting, corruption, bureaucracy and officials who want to stay in their positions," as well as what he called constant attempts to "steal victory" from Wagner.
In response, Russia's defence ministry late on Friday issued a second statement seeking "to clarify" the situation and acknowledging the role of Wagner Group fighters in Soledar.
"As for the direct storming of Soledar's city quarters occupied by the armed forces of Ukraine, this combat task was successfully accomplished by the courageous and selfless actions of volunteers from the Wagner assault detachments," the ministry said.
Zelenskiy mocked the statement as "a clear sign of failure for the enemy" and said it should serve as an incentive to put more pressure on Moscow's forces.
"They are already fighting among themselves over who should be credited with some tactical advance," he said in a late-night video address.
If confirmed, the capture of Soledar would mark Russia's first significant gain since July. It follows months of battlefield defeats and major retreats near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine and from Kherson in the south.
Around 100 people have been evacuated from Soledar to the Russian-held town of Shakhtarsk, Russia's RIA news agency quoted a local official as saying. Ukraine said on Thursday more than 500 civilians including 15 children were trapped inside Soledar.
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