Russia's Wagner group claims eastern Bakhmut captured

Russia's Wagner mercenary group claimed Wednesday to have captured the eastern bank of Bakhmut, the industrial town in east Ukraine where fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has raged for months.

The announcement came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that if Bakhmut fell, Moscow would gain an "open road" for offensives deeper into the country.

Wagner chief and Kremlin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin said on social media that his forces "have taken all of the eastern part of Bakhmut", a salt-mining town with a pre-war population of 80,000.

The intense fighting around Bakhmut has been the longest and bloodiest in Russia's more than year-long invasion, which has devastated swathes of Ukraine and displaced millions of people.

Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN what could happen if Bakhmut falls to Russian forces.

"We understand that after Bakhmut, (Russian forces) could go further" and attack nearby cities in the Donetsk region.

"They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be an open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction," Zelensky said in an interview set to air Wednesday.

Wagner has spearheaded the attack on Bakhmut and its chief, Prigozhin, is locked in a dispute with Russia's military leadership.

- Russia aims for 'further offensive' -

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told military officials during a televised meeting on Tuesday that taking control of the city would allow for "further offensive operations" in eastern Ukraine.

Prigozhin estimated the day before that between "12,000 and 20,000" Ukrainian troops were still defending the town.

Zelensky told CNN that his armed forces were resolved to stay in Bakhmut.

"Of course, we have to think about the lives of our military. But we have to do whatever we can whilst we're getting weapons, supplies, and our army is getting ready for the counter-offensive."

Zelensky was set to meet UN chief Antonio Guterres in Kyiv as he makes his third visit to Ukraine since Russia's invasion.

Talks were expected to focus on extending a deal with Russia allowing Ukraine to export its grain.

EU defence ministers were also meeting in Stockholm to discuss a plan to rush one billion euros' worth of ammunition to Ukraine as pressure mounts on Kyiv's allies to bolster supplies to the war effort.

Ukraine's Western backers warn that Kyiv is facing a critical shortage of 155-millimetre howitzer shells as it fires thousands each day in its fight against the grinding Russian offensive.

During a visit to Canada on Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen underscored a European resolve to ward off Russian aggression.

But a report by The New York Times on Tuesday claiming that US officials had seen new intelligence indicating a "pro-Ukrainian group" was behind last year's sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines could raise difficult questions among the allies.

"This is not our activity," Ukraine's Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told reporters in Stockholm.

- 'Glory to Ukraine' -

As Russia said it was closer to capturing Bakhmut, Ukraine said it had identified a soldier who had gone missing in the area being shot dead in a video that sparked outrage on social media.

The footage shows what appears to be a detained Ukrainian combatant standing in a shallow trench and smoking, and then being shot after saying "Glory to Ukraine".

"Based on a preliminary examination, we believe that the video may be authentic," a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office told AFP on  Wednesday.

Both sides have said the Bakhmut battle has cost a significant number of troops, though neither has given figures.

Ukrainian officials say around 4,000 civilians remain in the town, which has been virtually flattened, including dozens of children.