The fate of Ukraine’s embattled industrial center of Bakhmut hung in question Sunday, as each side in the brutal war made conflicting claims over who controlled what remains of the ruined city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces were not occupying Bakhmut, but Russia claimed it had, in fact, taken control after eight months of fighting.

Bakhmut has been the site of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, although analysts say its control holds more symbolic than strategic significance.

Neither side’s claims about controlling Bakhmut could be independently verified, and a Russian victory was unlikely to alter the direction of the war, according to military analysts.

FILE - In this grab taken from video and released by Prigozhin Press Service Saturday, May 20, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group military company speaks holding a Russian national flag in front of his soldiers in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday, May 21, 2023 that Russian forces weren't occupying Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow's insistence that the eastern Ukrainian city had fallen. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP, File)

“Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today,” Zelenskyy said Sunday in response to a reporter’s question at the Group of Seven summit in Japan.

“We are not throwing people [away] to die,” Zelenskyy said through an interpreter. “People are the treasure. I clearly understand what is happening in Bakhmut. I cannot share with you the technical details of what is happening with our warriors.”

Earlier at the summit, Zelenskyy spoke in English when asked if the city was in Ukrainian control, saying: “I think no, but you have to — to understand that there is nothing.

“They’ve destroyed everything. There are no buildings. It’s a pity. It’s tragedy,” he said. “For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing on this place, so — just ground and — and a lot of dead Russians.”

His press secretary later walked back those comments and said Zelenskyy was responding to a different question.

“Reporter’s question: Russians said they have taken Bakhmut,” the press secretary wrote on Facebook. “President’s reply: I think no.”

“In this way, the president denied the capture of Bakhmut,” he wrote.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, arrives for his bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, following the conclusion of the G7 Summit Leaders' Meeting in Hiroshima Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool Photo via AP)

Hours earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Russian Armed Forces and the private Wagner paramilitary group “on the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk,” using Bakhmut’s Soviet-era name, according to state news agencies.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said Wagner and the military “completed the liberation” of Bakhmut.

Wagner mercenaries led the Russian offensive, and Wagner’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime Putin associate, often used the battle to criticize Russian military leadership.

On the ground, heavy fighting was still going on, and Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Ukrainian troops had the city “in a semi-encirclement.”

“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut, and they lost part of the dominant heights around the city,” Malyar said. “That is, the advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, greatly complicates the enemy’s presence in Bakhmut.”

Before the war, about 80,000 people lived in Bakhmut, an industrial center surrounded by gypsum and salt mines. It produced sparkling wine in underground caves, and its broad tree-lined avenues and stately historic mansions, now razed to a wasteland, made it a tourist destination.

Zelenskyy made his comments from the G-7 meeting in Hiroshima, where President Biden announced an additional $375 million in U.S. aid for Ukraine, including ammunition, artillery and vehicles.

“I thanked him for the significant financial assistance,” Zelenskyy tweeted.

President Joe Biden, left, walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ahead of a working session on Ukraine during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, POOL)

The fresh support from the U.S. includes training on F-16 fighter jets, considered a precursor to providing the aircraft to Ukraine.

Biden said Zelenskyy had provided a “flat assurance” that Ukraine would not use any F-16s jets from the U.S. to attack Russian territory.

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Bolstering international support is critical ahead of Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive to reclaim territory seized by Russia since the official invasion that began in February 2022.

“Japan. G7. Important meetings with partners and friends of Ukraine. Security and enhanced cooperation for our victory. Peace will become closer today,” Zelenskyy tweeted from Hiroshima.

The G-7 group of wealthy democracies promised new sanctions and measures to reinforce financial penalties aimed at curtailing Russia’s war effort.

“Russia’s brutal war of aggression represents a threat to the whole world in breach of fundamental norms, rules and principles of the international community. We reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes to bring a comprehensive, just and lasting peace,” the group said in a statement.

The G-7 summit was an opportunity for leaders to influence one another to boost support for Ukraine, said Matthew Goodman, an economics expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

“Zelenskyy’s presence puts some pressure on G-7 leaders to deliver more — or explain to him directly why they can’t,” he said.

With News Wire Services

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