KYIV, Ukraine - The head of Russian paramilitary group Wagner said Saturday his fighters were near the centre of Bakhmut as a top Ukrainian commander insisted it was important to "buy time" ahead of an upcoming counteroffensive.
British intelligence said in an update the frontline had shifted in the fight for Bakhmut, the longest and bloodiest battle of Moscow's one-year invasion -- but that any further Russian advance in the devastated town could be "highly challenging".
Some military experts have questioned the sense of the continued fight for Bakhmut, but Ukrainian officials say that the town's fall could lead to further Russian advances in the east.
In a video released on Saturday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of Russian mercenary group Wagner, said that his forces were close to the administrative centre of Bakhmut.
Standing on the rooftop of a high-rise building in what is said to be Bakhmut, Prigozhin is seen pointing towards a building in the distance.
"This is the building of the town administration, this is the centre of the town," he said.
"It is one kilometre and two hundred metres away," said Prigozhin, who was clad in full military gear.
Speaking as artillery boomed in the background, Prigozhin said the most important thing now was to receive more ammunition from the army and "move forward".
Wagner has been spearheading offensives against cities in eastern Ukraine including Bakhmut. Both sides have suffered heavy losses.
Earlier this week Wagner said its fighters had captured the eastern part of Bakhmut.
A 'killing zone'
The commander of Ukraine's ground forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, said on Saturday the fight for Bakhmut helped win time in preparation for a future counteroffensive.
"The real heroes now are the defenders who are holding the eastern front on their shoulders, and inflicting the heaviest possible losses, sparing neither themselves nor the enemy," Syrsky was quoted as saying in a statement.
"It is necessary to buy time to build reserves and launch a counteroffensive, which is not far off."
British military intelligence said that the Bakhmutka River in the centre of Bakhmut now marked the front line.
"Ukrainian forces hold the west of the town and have demolished key bridges over the river, which runs north-south through a strip of open ground 200 metres-800 metres wide," the British defence ministry said.
"This area has become a killing zone, likely making it highly challenging for Wagner forces attempting to continue their frontal assault westwards."
Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has been entangled in a power struggle with the defense ministry.
He has several times claimed battlefield victories ahead of Russia's army, criticised Russia's top brass and accused the military of not sharing ammunition with his forces.
On Saturday he said he was ready to ask Russia's top commanders for forgiveness but at the same time appeared to mock Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
He said they were "outstanding military commanders" and added that Russia's greatest military leaders including Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Suvorov "could have learnt" from them.
"I absolutely -- totally -- support all their initiatives," Prigozhin added.
Shelling of Kherson
The Russian army kept shelling the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, killing three people and wounding another two, Ukrainian officials said Saturday.
"Russian terrorists are shelling Kherson again," said Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine's presidential office, posting a picture of firefighters next to a charred car.
Several cars were damaged as a result of the shelling.
Galyna Kolisnyk, 53, said the Russians struck when she was in a store.
"When we entered, literally five minutes later this tragedy happened," she told AFP.
"Explosions began, our car got hit," she said. "This is horrible."
Kherson is the capital of one of the four regions -- along with Donetsk, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia -- that Russia claims to have annexed but does not fully control.
Since Russia's retreat from the city of Kherson late last year, it has been regularly pounded by Moscow's troops.
Donetsk's separatist mayor Alexei Kulemzin said Saturday that Ukrainian shelling had killed two people including a young boy.
In the Czech capital Prague meanwhile, thousands took to the streets Saturday in an anti-government protest demanding an end to military support for Ukraine. The country is battling record inflation levels caused mainly by a spike in energy prices due to the war.
Protesters called on the centre-right government of Petr Fiala to resign, accusing their leaders of caring more about Ukraine than its own citizens.
© Agence France-Presse