U.S. thinks Putin ally Prigozhin wants control of salt, gypsum from mines near Bakhmut

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is of the view that Russian President Vladimir Putin's ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the founder of Russia's most powerful mercenary group, is interested in taking control of salt and gypsum from mines near the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, a White House official said on Thursday.

There are indications that monetary motives are driving Russia's and Prigozhin's "obsession" with Bakhmut, the official added. Prigozhin is the owner of private Russian military company Wagner Group.

The United States has previously accused Russian mercenaries of exploiting natural resources in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and elsewhere to help fund Moscow's war in Ukraine, a charge Russia rejected as "anti-Russian rage."

Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by Western countries for his role in Wagner bade farewell on Thursday to former convicts who had served out their contracts in Ukraine and urged them to avoid the temptation to kill when back in civilian life.

Out of its force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries, Wagner has sustained over 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut, the U.S. official said on Thursday.

The White House said late last month that the Wagner Group, took delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, a sign of the group's expanding role in that conflict.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; writing by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman)