(Kyiv) Russia said on Thursday it was blocking Ukrainian forces in Bakhmout and preventing any reinforcements from entering the city, suggesting that Russian forces are about to take the city, the epicenter of fighting since last summer.

In a comment to AFP, the Ukrainian army immediately denied this, claiming to continue to supply its troops in Bakhmout and inflict daily “crazy losses” on the enemy.

AFP could not verify these statements from an independent source.

The leader of the paramilitary group Wagner, Evguéni Prigojine, whose fighters are on the front line in Bakhmout, told him that it was still “ premature ” to speak of a complete encirclement of the locality.

A city of some 70,000 inhabitants before the conflict, the city, now totally destroyed, has been the scene of terrible fighting for months.

Due to the length of the battle and the heavy losses suffered by both sides, it has become the symbol of the struggle between Russians and Ukrainians for control of the industrial region of Donbass, Moscow’s stated objective.

“ The assault groups (of the paramilitary group) Wagner are continuing high-intensity military operations to drive back the enemy from the neighborhoods in the center of Artyovsk (the name given by the Russians to Bakhmout), ”, the Russian Ministry of Security said on Thursday. Defence, in its daily report.

“ The (Russian) airborne troops support the assault groups on the flanks, blocking the sending of Ukrainian army reserves into the city and the possibility of a withdrawal (from Bakhmout) of the enemy units ”, he continued.

Contacted by AFP, the Ukrainian army denied any blocking of its soldiers.

“ We can fully communicate with our troops, both through technical means, but also to deliver food products, ammunition, medicine, everything necessary, and to recover our wounded ”, indicated Serguiï Tcherevaty, a Ukrainian military spokesman.

“Our forces maintain their defense by inflicting crazy losses on the enemy daily”, he added, specifying that the Ukrainian artillery was “constantly” conducting counter-battery fire on the Russian guns so that they would not could not concentrate their fire on the supply lines towards Bakhmout.

Mr. Prigojine took more precautions than the Russian army, in a message published by his press service on Telegram.

“ The Ukrainian army continues to bring in reinforcements and transfer them to the city. Difficult and bloody fighting is underway, so it is premature to talk about a complete encirclement of Bakhmout,” he said.

“More than 80% of Bakhmout is under our control, the other parts are resisting fiercely”, he added.

In recent days, Ukrainian forces appear to have lost ground in central Bakhmut, where several Russian war correspondents have visited, showing in their reports a devastated city with an apocalyptic backdrop.

On Monday, the head of the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, released a video showing him in the center of Bakhmout and in which he claimed that the city was being “liberated”.

In recent weeks, Russian troops have advanced north and south of Bakhmut, cutting off several Ukrainian supply routes and seizing its eastern part.

For the past few days, they seem to have been advancing in the center of the city, in furious urban fighting, again fueling speculation about an upcoming Ukrainian withdrawal.

At the beginning of March, when fears of a fall of Bakhmout were already mounting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had ruled out any withdrawal of his troops there.

Kyiv assures that its resistance for months in Bakhmout has made it possible to fix at one place on the front and destroy a large number of Russian troops, even if experts point out that the battle also has a significant cost for the Ukrainian army.

It is the longest and deadliest battle since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.