The number of graves at a cemetery used by Russia’s notorious mercenary Wagner Group has dramatically grown over the last two months, satellite images show.
A photograph taken on Jan. 24 by Maxar Technologies, a U.S. defense contractor headquartered in Colorado, shows at least 121 burial plots in a section of the cemetery allotted to fighters from the private military company.
An image of the same area taken on Nov. 24 appears to show around 17 graves, suggesting that in two months there has been around a sevenfold increase, according to an NBC News analysis of the site on the outskirts of the village of Bakinskaya, in southwestern Russia.
The apparent expansion at the site, which is situated around 200 miles from the border with Crimea, comes after Wagner Group fighters were belatedly credited earlier this month by Russia’s defense ministry with taking the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, which saw some of the war’s most intense combat.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, said troops from his irregular private army had taken the salt-mining town two days before the official announcement. He later griped that the Russian military was “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory.”
Prigozhin, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former restaurateur, has recruited former prisoners as soldiers for hire in Russia’s war on Ukraine, promising bounties and pardons in exchange for service. The Wagner Group previously provided assistance to the Russian military during conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Acknowledging Soledar’s fall for the first time on Wednesday, Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s forces in the east, said his country’s troops had now moved away from the town to previously prepared defense lines, “in order to preserve the lives of the personnel.”
He added that added Ukraine had inflicted “huge losses” on Russian soldiers comparable to “the losses of the aggressor in the two Chechen wars.”
NBC News could not independently verify this claim.
Two weeks ago, similar aerial photos taken around the nearby city of Bakhmut revealed the devastation of ruined buildings and bomb craters in the strategically significant city, by comparing the same areas pictured in August and then again in January. These images were also released by Maxar Technologies.
The U.S. government said last week that it will designate Wagner Group as a “significant transnational criminal organization” and impose further sanctions against the organization and its support network.
The Wagner Group did not comment on the satellite images and video footage.