Yevgeny Prigozhin: Wagner boss says his forces are handing control of Bakhmut to Moscow
One of President Zelenskyy's closest advisers has said that the much talked about counter-offensive against the Russian invaders has begun, as Correspondent John Ray reports
The head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner has claimed that his forces have started pulling out of the besieged city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said that Wagner troops have now handed over control of the city to the Russian military, days after separate claims were made that the city had been captured by Moscow.
A video published on Telegram shows Prigozhin saying the handover would be completed by Thursday June 1.
ITV News has been unable to verify the claims.
Russia's defence ministry did not offer an immediate comment to Prigozhin's announcement, while Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said that Wagner units remain inside Bakhmut.
Ms Maliar added that Ukrainian forces still have a foothold in the southwestern outskirts of the city.
Military analysts have suggested that Bakhmut does not represent a significant prize for either side in the ongoing war.
But as the battle for Bakhmut's control has laboured its capture has taken on symbolic importance, particularly for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin has used the battle for the Ukrainian city to frequently vent his personal views about the conduct of Russia's military hierarchy and the direction of the war.
"Prigozhin is… using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine," the Institute for the Study of War think tank, said.
The development in Bakhmut comes ahead of an anticipated spring counteroffensive from Ukraine.
But Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Thursday that Kyiv's counteroffensive was already underway.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Podolyak said that "dozens of different actions to destroy Russian occupation forces" had "already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow".
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...