The head of Wagner says his forces have started pulling out of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and handing over control to the Russian military.
It comes days after he said troops from the Russian private military contractor had captured the ruined city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s millionaire owner with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video published on Telegram that the handover will be done by June 1.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian defence ministry.
It was not possible to independently verify whether Wagner’s pullout from the bombed-out city has begun.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian General Staff said heavy fighting was continuing inside the eastern city after a nine-month battle, which has killed tens of thousands of people.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said on Thursday that Wagner units have been replaced by regular troops in the suburbs but Wagner fighters remain inside the city.
Ukrainian forces still have a foothold in the south-western outskirts, deputy minister of defence Hanna Maliar said.
Mr Prigozhin’s Bakhmut triumph would deliver a badly needed victory for Mr Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine last February has lost momentum and now faces the possibility of a Ukrainian counteroffensive using advanced weapons supplied by Kyiv’s western allies.
Top Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Thursday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is already underway, saying it should not be anticipated as a “single event” starting “at a specific hour of a specific day”.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Podolyak said “dozens of different actions to destroy Russian occupation forces” were “taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow”.
Mr Prigozhin has a long-running feud with the Russian military leadership dating back to Wagner’s creation.
During the 15-month war in Ukraine, he has repeatedly and publicly chastised Russia’s military leadership, accusing them of incompetence and failure to properly provision his troops as they spearheaded the battle for Bakhmut.
Wagner’s involvement in the capture of Bakhmut has added to Mr Prigozhin’s standing, which he has used to set forth his personal views about the conduct of the war.
“Prigozhin is … using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said.
His frequent critical commentary about Russia’s military performance is uncommon in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Mr Putin can usually air such criticism.
His flat statement of what he will do over the next week in Bakhmut came a day after he again broke with the Kremlin line on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russian unleashed a barrage of Iranian-made Shahed 36 drones against Kyiv in its 12th nighttime air assault on the Ukrainian capital this month – but the city’s air defences shot them all down, Ukrainian authorities said on Thursday.
The Kremlin’s forces also launched 30 airstrikes and 39 attacks from multiple rocket launchers as well as artillery and mortar attacks across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said.
At least one civilian was killed and 13 others were hurt in Ukraine on Wednesday and overnight, the Ukrainian presidential office said on Thursday.
In Russia, meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that five Swedish diplomats will be expelled from the country.
According to a statement, the decision is a response to Stockholm’s “openly hostile step” to declare five employees of Russian foreign missions in Sweden “personae non grata” in April.
Moscow additionally announced its decision to close its consulate in Goteborg in September, as well as its “withdrawal of consent” to the activities of the Swedish consulate in St Petersburg.