Wagner Group's Prigozhin says his forces are ready to defend Belgorod from mounting attacks

Wagner Group's Prigozhin says his forces are ready to defend Belgorod from mounting attacks

The head of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, declared on Saturday that he was ready to send his units to defend the Russian region of Belgorod, which borders Ukraine and has been hit by intense shelling and attacks in recent days.

"If the Ministry of Defence does not stop what is happening in the Belgorod region (...) where Russian territory is in fact being captured, then obviously we will arrive", he said in an audio message published by his press service.

"We will defend our (...) Russian people and all those who live there."

He made clear that his forces would not wait for official authorisation to deploy in the region.

"The only thing we'll be asking for is ammunition, so that we don't arrive, as we say back home, bare-arsed in the cold", Mr Prigozhin said.

Belgorod has recently been hit by numerous attacks, the likes of which have not been seen on Russian territory since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said today that on Friday alone, the area was hit by more than 500 projectile weapons, more than 370 of them in and around the town of Shebekino, from which hundreds of civilians have fled.

According to the authorities, at least 27 people were injured. Mr Gladkov announced on Saturday that the death toll has now risen to five.

Russia also claimed on Thursday to have repelled an attempted ground attack in Belgorod from Ukraine, one week after a spectacular armed incursion that demonstrated the vulnerability of Russia's borders.

The head of Wagner, who has frequently and publicly decried the performance of Russian forces in Ukraine, accused military leaders on Saturday of "ceding" territory in the Belgorod region.

"The Ministry of Defence is not in a position to do anything, because it de facto does not exist," he said.

The day before, he said that Wagner's troops had "99%" left Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and handed over their positions to the regular army, after claiming to have captured the town on 20 May. Ukraine claims that the battle for the city is in fact ongoing.