Russia's private Wagner army targets 30,000 new recruits by mid-May - group founder

FILE PHOTO: Wagner private military group centre opens in St Petersburg

(Reuters) - Russia's Wagner mercenary group plans to recruit approximately 30,000 new fighters by the middle of May, its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday.

He said in an audio message on Telegram that Wagner recruitment centres, which he said last week had opened in 42 Russian cities, were hiring on average 500-800 people a day.

He gave no evidence to support the numbers, which Reuters could not independently verify.

Prigozhin's men have sustained heavy losses while leading Russian efforts to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has held out since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the year-long war.

In January, the United States assessed that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts Prigozhin had recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a free pardon if they survived six months.

Ukrainian officials have claimed that some 30,000 of Wagner's fighters have deserted or been killed or wounded, a figure that could not be independently verified.

Prigozhin said recruitment was going better than he had expected, and that those volunteering were in better physical shape than the convicts he had taken on before.

"By the middle of May, we plan on increasing the number of fighters in our units by about 30,000," he said.

Prigozhin has waged an active PR campaign for months to trumpet the role of Wagner in Russia's offensive, frequently complaining that the military top brass are failing to give his group sufficient credit and even alleging they have starved it of ammunition - a claimed denied by the defence establishment.

(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Gareth Jones)