Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was no longer in Belarus and had returned to Russia.
Prigozhin went to Belarus as part of a deal to end Prigozhin’s short-lived June 23 armed mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian defense officials. The Russian government was paying Prigozhin’s Wagner Group of mercenaries to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine, but he frequently complained that Russia did not supply his forces with enough ammunition.
Lukashenko’s claim that Prigozhin, once a confidant of Putin, had returned to Russia could not be immediately confirmed, and the Kremlin refused to comment on Prigozhin’s whereabouts. Russian media have reported that he was recently seen at his offices in St. Petersburg.
When Lukashenko brokered the deal to end the mutiny and allow Prigozhin and his troops to travel to Belarus, the Belarusian said he had to talk Putin out of killing Prigozhin for leading the mutiny. If he is indeed in Russia, Prigozhin’s status is not clear.
The Belarusian leader dismissed suggestions that Putin might order Prigozhin killed, saying, "If you think that Putin is so vicious and vindictive to finish him off, no, it's not going to happen."
Lukashenko said Prigozhin’s mercenaries were in their field camps, but it was not clear where he meant. Putin has said the mutinous troops could join the Russian military, retire from fighting or move to Belarus.
During the brief mutiny, Prigozhin's mercenaries quickly moved through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there before marching to within about 200 kilometers of Moscow. Prigozhin described it as a "march of justice" to oust his longtime foes — Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the military's general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, whose handling of the war in Ukraine he had criticized.
The Wagner fighters faced little resistance, downing at least six Russian helicopters and a command post aircraft and killing at least 10 airmen.
And then it abruptly ended, with Prigozhin ordering his troops to return to their camps rather than confront Russian troops on the outskirts of Moscow.
Lukashenko told reporters Thursday that his offer to allow some Wagner fighters to be stationed in Belarus still stood.
"At the moment the question of their transfer and setup has not been decided," Lukashenko said. "I am absolutely not worried or concerned that we will host a certain number of these fighters here."
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.