© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
(Reuters) – Mercenary fighters of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group are preparing to move to Belarus under the terms of a deal that defused their mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, a senior commander of the group was quoted as saying.
Since the June 23-24 mutiny, which saw Wagner fighters briefly seize a southern Russian city and march towards Moscow, the exact whereabouts of Prigozhin and his mercenaries have been unclear.
Under the deal that ended the mutiny, Prigozhin was meant to move to Belarus and his men – some of them ex-convicts freed early to fight in Ukraine – were given the option to move with him to Belarus, join Russia’s regular armed forces, or go home.
However, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday that Prigozhin and thousands of his fighters were still in Russia, raising questions about the deal’s implementation.
Anton Yelizarov, whose nom de guerre is “Lotus”, was quoted on Saturday by a channel on the Telegram messaging app as saying the fighters were now taking vacation until early August, on Prigozhin’s orders, before moving to Belarus.
“We have to prepare bases, training grounds, coordinate with local governments and administrations, organise interaction with the law enforcement agencies of Belarus and establish logistics,” he was quoted by the “Yevgeny Prigozhin on Telegram” channel as saying.
Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the interview.
Prigozhin himself has gone uncharacteristically quiet over the past two weeks. He has not posted on his previously preferred Telegram channel – Yevgeny Prigozhin Press Service – since June 26, when he defended his fighters’ mutinous actions.
An adviser to Belarus’ defence ministry said on Friday that nobody from the Wagner group had yet visited the disused military camp that Lukashenko had offered for the fighters’ use.
Yelizarov said there had been no attempt by Russia’s security forces to “hit” Wagner fighters since the mutiny.
Prigozhin, long fiercely critical of Russia’s defence ministry and General Staff chiefs over their handling of the war in Ukraine, said he launched his “march of justice” on Moscow to protest against corruption and incompetence among the top brass.
Asked about recent attacks on Prigozhin in the Russian state media, Yelizarov said they were an attempt by Russia’s military establishment to drive a wedge between the mercenary chief and his Wagner fighters.
The attempt would fail, he said, because Prigozhin himself had created and moulded the Wagner fighters “when the state did not need us”. Yelizarov compared Prigozhin and his men to the mythical King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
This week, Russian state TV broadcast footage purportedly shot during law enforcement raids on Prigozhin’s St Petersburg office and one of his “palaces”.
It said an investigation against Prigozhin was still under way despite the June 24 deal, under which criminal charges against him over the failed mutiny were dropped.