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Wagner mercenary chief is still in Russia despite deal to end mutiny, Belarus leader says

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in a rare news conference, said Yevgeny Prigozhin was in his hometown, St. Petersburg, more than a week after the armed rebellion.
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MINSK, Belarus — The mystery surrounding the fate of Russia's rebellious Wagner Group deepened Thursday after the president of Belarus said the mercenary fighters and their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, were not in his country even though the Kremlin said they had been effectively exiled there after having marched on Moscow.

Alexander Lukashenko held court in a rare, hourslong news conference Thursday morning, having summoned the world’s media, including NBC News, to his presidential palace in Minsk. Speaking a little more than a week since the armed mutiny in which he emerged as a surprise central figure, Lukashenko also dismissed concerns about his offer to eventually host the mercenaries on his territory.

He also shared new details about the tension on the day, saying up to seven Russian military aircraft were dispatched to Belarus to transport troops to defend Moscow. 

The comments raised new questions about how the unprecedented challenge to President Vladimir Putin's rule was resolved.

Prigozhin threw Russia into turmoil when he launched his mutiny against the Kremlin's military leaders, but he suddenly backed down after Lukashenko appeared to broker a deal in which Prigozhin and his fighters would leave Russia for its neighboring ally.

Lukashenko said last week that Prigozhin was in Belarus. On Thursday, however, he said Prigozhin was in Russia — in his hometown, St. Petersburg — despite the Kremlin's effectively saying he had been banished. His mercenaries were still in their "permanent camps" in Russian-controlled territory, Lukashenko added, saying he was still waiting for the Kremlin to ask him to host the fighters.

Prigozhin has not been seen publicly since the short-lived mutiny, and NBC News could not confirm his whereabouts. Overnight a Russian state TV channel, Russia 24, aired a report describing Prigozhin’s mutiny as planned, and it appeared to try to discredit him with details of his criminal past. It also depicted his children as privileged enjoying parties. NBC News did not confirm the reports.

The coverage is a sudden change from previous scrutiny on state TV, which tended to laud Prigozhin as a war hero.

Another Russian news organization, Izvestia, has published pictures it said were from a police raid on Prigozhin’s house, with fake passports, dollar piles of bills and gold bars.

Lukashenko said Prigozhin’s fate is now in Putin’s hands.

"You have to understand that Putin knows Prigozhin much better than I do,” Lukashenko said. “Putin is much more familiar with him, even from the time in St. Petersburg, when they lived and worked there. And they had very good relations with each other — maybe even more than good.”

Assault rifles and ammunition are arranged on the floor of Prigozhin's home.
Assault rifles and ammunition are arranged on the floor of Prigozhin's home. Izvestia

Afterward, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the Kremlin was not keeping tabs on Prigozhin. "We don’t track his movements," he said. "We neither have the means, nor desire to do it."

As the mutiny initially gathered pace, a visibly angry Putin made a televised address condemning Wagner leaders as traitors who had stabbed Russia in the back — only to make an accord with the group hours later.

Lukashenko downplayed Putin's "first reaction" and said it may have "become much softer.” Some Western observers have speculated that Prigozhin may not be safe from Kremlin retribution, but Lukashenko said Putin would not make an attempt on the Wagner boss's life.

Had Putin been weakened by the momentary uprising? "Don’t even hope for it," Lukashenko said at the news conference. "There was no weakness. Putin was busy with his own issues."

He said he did "understand" why some Belarusians worry about the implications of having thousands of members of the armed mercenary group inside their borders. He said the U.S. and others would see Belarus as having "a very powerful combat unit" in Wagner.

"I absolutely do not care and do not worry that a certain number of these fighters will be deployed here," said Lukashenko, who has portrayed himself as something of a dealmaker in the agreement between Prigozhin and Putin.

"The main condition" of the potential Wagner deployment, he added, "is that if we need to use this unit for the defense of the state, it will be used instantly. Their experience will be in demand."

The last time Lukashenko had to use security forces to put down a democratic uprising was after a 2020 election that independent observers, the U.S., the European Union and others said were fraudulent.

Putin supported Lukashenko’s brutal response to the protests, in which tens of thousands of people were detained and there were widespread reports of torture in prisons. A United Nations report said this week that the country’s human rights situation remained “catastrophic.”

This week, Minsk was ostensibly enjoying a summer in which locals relaxed on restaurant terraces. As in any authoritarian country where freedom of speech is heavily restricted, it is often difficult to accurately gauge the mood here. Nevertheless, some people said they felt apprehension at the prospect of hosting Wagner fighters.

“It’s very bad,” said Andrew, 44, an entrepreneur. "Everyone feels the same but may be afraid to tell this."

Like everyone interviewed, he declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals by the state.

Not everyone here follows politics, of course. Maxim, 40, a software developer, said the conflict next door caused him only some degree of anxiety. “All this situation around Ukraine, war — it’s a little bit worrying,” he said.

Last week, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival in the 2020 presidential election, told NBC News that the presence of Wagner would endanger not only Belarus, but also its neighbors in the E.U.

Tsikhanouskaya, who is living in exile in Lithuania, having fled with her children after the widely condemned vote, tweeted her criticism of Lukashenko's comments Thursday.

"It’s impossible to know the truth amid the misinformation," she said of Lukashenko's statement on Prigozhin's whereabouts. "But one thing is sure: Belarusians deserve freedom, not to be pawns in games of power between tyrants. Our fight for independence goes on."

Keir Simmons reported from Minsk, and Matthew Bodner and Alexander Smith reported from London.