The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group said on Thursday he had been joking when he said his men would suspend artillery fire in Bakhmut to allow Ukrainian forces on the other side of the frontline to show the city to visiting US journalists.
Wagner has been spearheading Russia's assault on Bakhmut since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, but Ukrainian forces have so far thwarted its attempts to take full control of the city.
Wagner's official statement
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner's founder, said in an audio message published on Thursday by his press service: "A decision has been taken to suspend artillery fire so that American journalists can safely film Bakhmut and go home."
However, in a later audio message, Prigozhin said: "Guys, this is military humour. Humour, and nothing more... It was a joke."
Prigozhin, who has publicly lambasted Russia's military establishment over its conduct of the war in Ukraine, is known for his combative, down-to-earth style and also for his ironic sense of humour.
Last month, after long complaining about shortages of supplies for his fighters, Prigozhin said he and his men had been "blown away" by the fact that they had finally started to receive ammunition deliveries.