The number of graves in a cemetery used by notorious Russian mercenary Wagner Group has increased dramatically over the past two months, satellite images show.
A photograph taken Jan. 24 by Maxar Technologies, a US defense contractor headquartered in Colorado, shows at least 121 burial plots in a section of the cemetery reserved for private military company fighters.
An image of the same area taken on Nov. 24 appears to show around 17 graves, suggesting that in two months there has been 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 of the site, located about 200 miles from the Crimean border, comes after Wagner Group fighters were belatedly credited earlier this month by the Russian Defense Ministry with taking the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, which has seen part of the war. most intense fight.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, said troops from his private irregular army took the salt mining town two days before the official announcement. Later he claimed that the Russian army was “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory”.
Prigozhin, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former restaurateur, recruited former prisoners as soldiers for hire in Russia’s war on Ukraine, promising bounties and pardons in return for services. The Wagner Group previously provided assistance to the Russian military during the 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 life of the personnel. ”
He added that Ukraine had inflicted “enormous 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 town of Bakhmut revealed the devastation of crumbling buildings and bomb craters in the strategically important city, comparing the same areas photographed in August and then again in January. These images were also released by Maxar Technologies.
The US government said last week it would designate the Wagner Group as a “significant transnational criminal organization” and impose new sanctions against the organization and its support network.
The Wagner Group has not commented on the satellite images and video footage.
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com