KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- The head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner claimed Thursday that his forces have started pulling out of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and are handing over control to the Russian military, days after he said Wagner troops had captured the ruined city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a convicted criminal and Wagner's millionaire owner with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video published on Telegram that the handover would be completed by June 1. Russia's Defense Ministry didn't confirm this and it wasn't possible independently to verify whether Wagner's pullout from the bombed-out city has begun after a nine-month battle that killed tens of thousands of people. Prigozhin said his troops would now rest in camps, repair equipment and await further orders.
Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Thursday that regular Russian troops had replaced Wagner units in the suburbs but that Wagner fighters remained inside the city. Ukrainian forces maintain a foothold in the southwestern outskirts, she said.
Prigozhin's Bakhmut triumph delivered a badly needed victory for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has lost momentum and now faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive using advanced weapons that Kyiv's Western allies have provided.
According to top Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, that counteroffensive is already underway. He said Thursday it should not be anticipated as a "single event" starting "at a specific hour of a specific day." Writing on Twitter, Podolyak said "dozens of different actions to destroy Russian occupation forces" had "already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow."
In other developments Thursday:
Russia 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 defenses shot them all down, Ukrainian authorities said 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 wounded in Ukraine on Wednesday and overnight, the Ukrainian presidential office said Thursday.
Russia attacked a dam on the Vovcha River in Karlivka, 24 miles west of Donetsk, destroying it and raising a flooding risk for three villages, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. The villages might be evacuated, he said on Telegram.
Russia and Belarus signed a deal formalizing deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Control of the weapons will remain with Moscow. Putin had announced in March that his country planned to deploy tactical, comparatively short-range and small-yield nuclear weapons in Belarus.
A U.K.-based technology firm says pro-Russia hackers faked the location data to form a giant letter "Z" -- a symbol of Russia's war in Ukraine -- in the Black Sea. Geollect says location data for commercial ships has been remotely spoofed so vessels near Crimea appear to form a 65-mile long "Z" on open-source maritime tracking sites. Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. The false location data increased the risk of collisions, the firm warned.
A total of 106 Ukrainian prisoners of war have been released in another major exchange with Russia, chief Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak said. The eight officers and 98 soldiers released fought in the battle for Bakhmut. The bodies of two foreigners and a Ukrainian were also returned to Ukraine. Prigozhin posted a video of himself standing next to two wooden coffins, one draped with an American flag and another with a Turkish flag. Prigozhin said the bodies were being handed over to Ukrainian forces and provided the American's name but the State Department couldn't confirm it, pending an investigation and due to privacy concerns. Russian officials confirmed the swap, without providing any details on how many Russians were returned.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that five Swedish diplomats are to be expelled from the country. A statement said 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. Russia and Western countries have often expelled each other's diplomats since the war began.