By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) -The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary force said on Monday he needed the regular army to supply him with more ammunition, reinforcements and covering support if he was to win the months-long battle of attrition for Ukraine's Bakhmut.
The appeal from Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin came amid signs of a deepening rift between him and the defence ministry whom he has bitterly criticised for months and accused of deliberately starving his men of ammunition, an allegation it has rejected.
Prigozhin's fighters - some of them convicts - have spearheaded the assault in eastern Ukraine for months, focusing their efforts on the small city of Bakhmut, which Russia calls Artyomovsk and sees as a useful stepping stone to seize bigger cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Prigozhin, an ex-convict himself and a Putin ally, said on Friday that his units had "practically surrounded Bakhmut", where fighting has intensified in the past week after months of attritional warfare, with Russian forces attacking from three sides.
But on Monday he said that Ukraine had built up its own forces in surrounding towns and areas to try to push Wagner out of Bakhmut and that he needed help to take the city for Moscow.
"I'm knocking on all doors and sounding the alarm about ammunition and reinforcements, as well as the need to cover our flanks," he said in a statement released by his press service.
"If everyone is coordinated, without ambition, screw-ups and tantrums, and carries out this work, then we will block the armed forces of Ukraine. If not, then everyone will be screwed."
Prigozhin said earlier on Monday that his representative had been denied access to the headquarters of Russia's military command for Ukraine and was still not getting enough munitions despite repeated public complaints.
There was no immediate response from the Russian Ministry of Defence. Since the start of this year, the Ukraine campaign has been commanded personally by Russia's top general, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Prigozhin said his representative had been spurned by the army's top brass a day after he urgently requested ammunition supplies.
"On March 5, I wrote a letter to the commander of the SMO (special military operation) grouping about the urgent need to allocate ammunition. On March 6, at 8 a.m., my representative at the headquarters had his pass cancelled and was denied access," Prigozhin said via his press service on Telegram.
He noted that Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, had said he favoured the continued defence and reinforcement of Bakhmut and said it was obvious that Kyiv would fight for Bakhmut "to the end".
That, he said, meant his men needed to completely surround Ukrainian forces inside Bakhmut.
"We must do our job to the end too," said Prigozhin. "But when the whole world gathers around you, you need someone to work with you," he added, in an obvious reference to the defence ministry.
(Reporting by Reuters; Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Lidia Kelly; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jonathan Oatis)