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By Andrew Osborn

Russian mercenary boss escalates row with top army brass with image of dead bodies

FILE PHOTO: The founder of Russia's Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen inside a cockpit of a military Su-24 bomber plane over an unidentified location, in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in this image taken from handout footage released February 6, 2023. Press service of "Concord"/Handout via REUTERS

Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin took a bitter public feud with the top army brass to a new level on Wednesday, publishing a grisly image of dozens of his fighters he said had been killed after being deprived of ammunition.

Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner private military company which is fighting on Moscow's behalf in Ukraine, has this week repeatedly accused the Russian defence ministry of deliberately starving his fighters of munitions in what he has called a treasonous attempt to destroy Wagner.

The defence ministry, in a statement late on Tuesday, said such allegations were "completely untrue" and complained - without mentioning Prigozhin by name - about attempts to create splits that worked "solely to the benefit of the enemy".

Undeterred, Prigozhin doubled down on his allegations on Wednesday, taking the unusual step of releasing a picture of dozens of his dead fighters laying prostrate on the icy ground in eastern Ukraine, where Wagner is battling to try to take the small Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

"This is one of the places where the bodies of those who have died are gathered," Prigozhin told a prominent Russian military blogger in an interview.

"These are guys who died yesterday because of so-called shell hunger. Mothers, wives and children will get their bodies. There should be five times less (dead). Who is guilty that they died? The guilty ones are those who should have resolved the question of us getting enough ammo."

In another move likely to infuriate the top army brass, he released a copy of what he said was Wagner's official request to the defence ministry for ammunition with detailed tallies of shells used, requested and received - though he said he had blanked out sensitive data such as the names of the shells.

"They're still not giving us ammo. No steps to give us ammo have been taken," said Prigozhin, saying that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, were withholding their signatures from shell approval forms.

Neither man has publicly responded to Prigozhin's criticism in the past.

Prigozhin, a wealthy catering tycoon and ex-convict, has assumed a more public role since the war started. But he has faced push back from the authorities in recent weeks amid some signs of a move by the Kremlin and defence ministry to curb his growing influence.

On Wednesday, he said he had launched a social media campaign to try to secure the shells and that Wagner had been reduced to begging military warehouses for ammunition, which he said was sometimes successful.

Despite the purported shortage, he said his fighters would keep trying to overrun Ukraine's Bakhmut.

"Twice as many of us are going to die that's all, until there are none of us left," he said.

"And when Wagner are all dead then (Defence Minister) Shoigu and (General) Gerasimov will probably have to pick up a gun."

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)

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