The eastern Ukrainian city, famous for its salt mines, was the center of days of fierce fighting.
The head of Russian mercenary Wagner Group has claimed to have secured control of the salt mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, but uncertainty remains amid ongoing battles in the town centre.
Soledar has been at the center of days of intense fighting as Russia has seen it as key to its campaign for the nearby strategic town of Bakhmut and Ukraine’s larger eastern Donbass region.
It was not possible to verify conditions on the ground and Ukrainian officials did not comment on the situation.
“Wagner’s units have taken over all of Soledar’s territory. A cauldron has formed in the center of the city in which urban fighting is taking place,” Russian news agencies reported on Tuesday evening, the head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow,” Prigozhin added. The surrounded Ukrainian soldiers had been given an ultimatum to surrender by midnight (2200 GMT), the group said on Telegram.
Soledar is about 15 km (9 miles) from Bakhmut, and its capture would have symbolic, military and commercial value for Russia.
Russian news agency RIA then published a report saying the Wagner Group had taken over the Soledar salt mines following “fierce fighting”, while Prigozhin shared a photo of himself surrounded by his mercenaries in what he called one of the mines.
Still, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, expressed caution over the Russian claims.
“Russian forces have not captured the entirety of #Soledar despite Russian false claims that the city has fallen and #Bakhmut faces imminent encirclement,” he said in a Twitter thread, noting that Prigozhin he himself had acknowledged that urban warfare was continuing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not mention Soledar’s control in his usual video address Tuesday night when he reiterated his call for more Western weapons, saying Russia was seeking to step up its military campaign. He did not provide details.
But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry tweeted on Tuesday evening: “Even after suffering colossal losses, Russia is still trying to seize Soledar, home to Europe’s largest salt mine.”
Ukraine said earlier its forces were still holding positions in Soledar, withstanding wave after wave of assaults from Russian forces seeking their first battlefield victory in months.
Seizing Soledar would be Russia’s most substantial gain since August, following a series of humiliating retreats in the northeast and south in the second half of 2022.
But any victory in Bakhmut would come at a huge cost, with troops on both sides suffering heavy casualties in some of the heaviest fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year.
Kyiv has posted photos in recent days showing what it says are many Russian soldiers strewn dead in muddy fields.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would be a crucial step towards taking full control of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, one of four provinces it claimed it annexed two months ago.