Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday said Russia "destroyed everything" in the flashpoint city of Bakhmut.
"You have to understand that there is nothing," Zelenskyy told reporters at the G7 summit in Bakhmut, referring to Russia's actions. "They destroyed everything."
Although some news agencies reported that Zelenskyy had appeared to confirm the loss of Bakhmut during the summit, a spokesperson later said the Ukrainian leader was actually denying the city's capture.
"The president denied the capture of Bakhmut," Ukrainian presidential press secretary Sergiy Nykyforov said in a Facebook post on Sunday.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Sunday that Ukrainian forces have "semi-encircled" Bakhmut, with some parts of the city still under Ukrainian control.
Another Ukrainian official added that parts of the city remain under Ukrainian control.
"Our soldiers are holding fortifications and a number of areas in the south-west of the city," Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for the Army Group East, told Ukrainian television.
He added the scale of the city's destruction means it would be of no military or political use to Russia even if they capture it.
Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine's ground forces, meanwhile said Ukrainian troops continued to advance on the Bakhmut suburbs flanks, despite acknowledging they only control "an insignificant part" of the city.
Zelenskyy also later confirmed Sunday that Ukrainian forces remain in the city.
Russia claims victory
The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday first announced that its troops, along with Wagner mercenaries, have taken control of the flashpoint city.
Bakhmut, which is located in Ukraine's Donetsk province, has been the site of fierce fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces for months. Russia controls around half of the province and claimed to have annexed it in the autumn of 2022.
"As a result of offensive actions by Wagner assault units, supported by artillery and aviation of the Southern Group of Forces, the liberation of Artyomovsk has been completed," the Russian Defense Ministry said, referring to Bakhmut by its Soviet-era name.
The head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, also reported the capture of Bakhmut on Saturday.
Russian news agency Interfax reported Sunday that President Vladimir Putin had congratulated troops for capturing the city.
Fighting still ongoing, Ukrainian officials say
In turn, Ukraine said fighting was still ongoing.
"The situation is critical," Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said. "As of now, our defenders, control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in this area."
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine's eastern command, told the AP news agency that Prigozhin's claim "is not true. Our units are fighting in Bakhmut."
While the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a statement on Facebook that "heavy battles for the city of Bakhmut do not stop."
The bloody battle for Bakhmut
Over 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut before Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. The fight for control of the city erupted last August. Since then, Russian forces have besieged Bakhmut, a city under Kyiv's control within the industrial Donbas area.
The brutal fight for the city has been raging for over 9 months and descended into a vicious battle of attrition involving trench warfare.
No other city has been under siege for this long since the invasion started and both Ukraine and Russia have both suffered heavy losses.
Bakhmut is considered to be strategically important due to its location along the E40 highway — which connects Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, with the Russian city Rostov-on-Don.
Russian capture of the city would allow it to move on to other Ukrainian cities further west such as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, an important industrial hub and administrative center in the Donetsk region.
This, in turn, would bring Russia closer to its goal of conquering the entire Donetsk area.
kb,sdi/sms (Reuters, AP)