Lukashenko Says Prigozhin Can Stay for 'Some Time'

'Belarusians don't welcome war criminal Prigozhin,' opposition leader says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 27, 2023 3:03 PM CDT
Lukashenko Confirms Prigozhin Is in Belarus
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver a speech to the units of the Russian Defense Ministry, the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), and other services at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, June 27, 2023.   (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private army of prison recruits and other mercenaries who have fought some of the deadliest battles in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, escaped prosecution for his abortive armed rebellion against the Kremlin and arrived Tuesday in Belarus. The exile of the 62-year-old owner of the Wagner Group was part of a deal that ended the short-lived mutiny in Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed Prigozhin was in Belarus, and said he and some of his troops were welcome to stay "for some time" at their own expense, the AP reports.

Prigozhin has not been seen since Saturday, when he waved to well-wishers from a vehicle in the southern city of Rostov. He issued a defiant audio statement on Monday. And on Tuesday morning, a private jet believed to belong to him flew from Rostov to an air base southwest of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, according to data from FlightRadar24. Meanwhile, Moscow said preparations were underway for Wagner's troops, who numbered 25,000 according to Prigozhin, to hand over their heavy weapons to Russia's military. Prigozhin had said such moves were being taken ahead of a July 1 deadline for his fighters to sign contracts—which he opposed—with Russia's military command.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to set the stage for financial wrongdoing charges against an affiliated organization Prigozhin owns. Putin told a military gathering that Prigozhin's Concord Group earned 80 billion rubles ($941 million) from a contract to provide the military with food, and that Wagner had received over 86 billion rubles (over $1 billion) in the past year for wages and additional items. "I hope that while doing so they didn't steal anything, or stole not so much," Putin said, adding that authorities would look closely at Concord's contract.

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Lukashenko said there is no reason to fear Wagner's presence in his country, though in Russia, Wagner-recruited convicts have been suspected of violent crimes . The Wagner troops have "priceless" military knowledge and experience to share with Belarus, he said. But exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely seen as fraudulent and triggered mass protests, said Wagner troops will threaten the country and its neighbors. "Belarusians don't welcome war criminal Prigozhin," she told the AP.

(More Russia rebellion stories.)

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