Russian Wagner Group leader says his troops will pull out of Ukraine’s Bakhmut in days

Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia's Wagner Group mercenary force, said in a sudden and dramatic announcement on Friday that his forces would pull out of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut that they have been trying in vain to capture since last summer.

'In the absence of ammunition they're doomed to perish senselessly,' Yevgeny Prigozhin says

A man in a helmet and military fatigues is shown encircled by a number of troops in fatigues.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia's Wagner Group mercenary force, said in a sudden and dramatic announcement on Friday that his forces would pull out of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut that they have been trying in vain to capture since last summer.

Prigozhin said they would withdraw on May 10 — ending their involvement in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war — because of heavy losses and inadequate ammunition supplies. He asked defence chiefs to insert regular army troops in their place.

"I declare on behalf of the Wagner fighters, on behalf of the Wagner command, that on May 10, 2023, we are obliged to transfer positions in the settlement of Bakhmut to units of the defence ministry and withdraw the remains of Wagner to logistics camps to lick our wounds," Prigozhin said in a statement.

"I'm pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because in the absence of ammunition they're doomed to perish senselessly."

Bakhmut, a city of 70,000 people before the start of the war, has taken on huge symbolic importance for both sides because of the sheer intensity and duration of the fighting there.

An outdoor billboard is shown, recruiting for volunteers for a combat group, amid an urban landscape of buildings.

Wagner has been spearheading Russia's attempt to capture it and Prigozhin said three weeks ago that his men controlled more than 80 per cent of the city.

But Ukrainian defenders have held out, and Prigozhin has vented increasing anger at what he describes as lack of support from the Russian defence establishment.

Takes aim at Russian defence minister

It was not clear if his latest statement could be taken at face value, as he has frequently posted impulsive comments in the past. Only last week he withdrew one statement he said he had made as a "joke."

He has also previously complained publicly of a shortage of ammunition.

Earlier on Friday he appeared in a video surrounded by dozens of dead bodies he said were Wagner fighters, and was shown yelling and swearing at Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The announcement comes at a key juncture in the war, with Ukraine expected to launch a long-anticipated counter-offensive imminently.

It was the second dramatic development in the space of three days, after Moscow accused Ukraine of firing drones at the Kremlin in the early hours of Wednesday in an attempt to kill President Vladimir Putin. Kyiv denied it, and the United States dismissed Kremlin claims it was behind the incident as "lies."

Asks for Russian troops as replacements

The Kremlin declined to comment on Prigozhin's statement, citing the fact it was related to the course of its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

"Because of the lack of ammunition, our losses are increasing exponentially every day," the statement addressed to the head of general staff, the defence ministry, and Putin as supreme commander said.

"If, because of your petty jealousy, you do not want to give the Russian people the victory of taking Bakhmut, that's your problem," Prigozhin added in the video.

WATCH | Terence McKenna breaks down what's known about Yevgeny Prigozhin:

Putin’s most dangerous henchman

3 months ago

Duration 9:29

Yevgeny Prigozhin has lurked in Vladimir Putin’s shadow for years, and now he’s fighting Russia’s war in Ukraine with his ruthless 50,000-man mercenary army called The Wagner Group. CBC’s Terence McKenna breaks down what’s known about Prigozhin to uncover a dangerous ex-criminal playing a high-stakes game for control.

Prigozhin said he was asking Gerasimov to replace Wagner units in Bakhmut with regular troops, and to specify when this would happen.

The stated withdrawal date of May 10 gives defence chiefs just five days to fill the gap a Wagner pullout would create. It also threatens to overshadow national celebrations on May 9, when Russia commemorates victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War and Putin is due to address the nation from Red Square.

Prigozhin — who is wanted in the U.S. in connection with 2016 election interference offences — said he expected to face criticism.

"Whoever has critical remarks — come to Bakhmut, you're welcome, stand up with guns in your hands in place of our killed comrades."

He also promised that Wagner would be back: "We will lick our wounds, and when the Motherland is in danger, we will rise again to defend it. The Russian people can count on us."

Kherson residents leave ahead of weekend curfew

On the ground Friday, Ukraine said two people had been killed in the eastern Donetsk region and nine wounded over the past 24 hours, and that electricity distribution networks had been damaged by shelling in Donetsk and the southern Kherson region.

Small buses and dozens of cars left Kherson as the southern Ukrainian city prepared to start a 58-hour curfew following a spate of Russian attacks.

"No one will lock people in houses, people will be able, if they need, to go out near [the house] to buy what they need," Oleksander Tolokonnikov, said a spokesperson for the Kherson regional military administration.

A damaged gas station and convenience store is shown.

Kherson, which Ukraine recaptured from Russian troops last November after eight months of Russian occupation, is regularly bombarded from across the River Dnipro where Moscow's forces control swathes of the Kherson region.

Two villages in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Kherson region were hit four times on Friday by Russian guided bombs that destroyed a church building and damaged 20 residential homes, the regional administration said.

WATCH | CBC News near the frontlines of Bakhmut (from February):

What it’s like on two of Ukraine’s fiercest battlefields

2 months ago

Duration 7:42

Two of the fiercest battles in Ukraine are near Bakhmut and Vuhledar, and the National’s Adrienne Arsenault was taken there to see how Ukrainian forces are fighting back against Russia.

One person was also wounded in the attacks, it said without providing details. On Wednesday, 23 people were killed by Russian shelling in the region, local officials said.

Kherson is set to begin the unusually long curfew on Friday evening.

Russia, too, has ordered an evacuation. The Kremlin-installed governor of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said on Friday he had ordered the evacuation of villages close to the front line there, saying that Ukrainian shelling had intensified in recent days.

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