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Wagner chief Prigozhin is in Belarus following armed rebellion, Lukashenko says

<i>Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters</i><br/>Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group's pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don
Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group's pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don

By Katharina Krebs, Paul P. Murphy, Natasha Bertrand, Jennifer Hansler and Helen Regan, CNN

(CNN) — Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has arrived in Belarus, the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday, days after the mercenaries’ 36-hour military insurrection posed an unprecedented challenge to the authority of Russia’s leadership.

“I see that Prigozhin is already flying on this plane. Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian state TV Tuesday.

Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts are unknown. The warlord hasn’t been seen in any videos or photos since he left the Rostov-on-Don military headquarters Saturday evening.

However, satellite imagery by global monitoring company BlackSky shows two planes linked to Prigozhin landed at a Belarusian airbase outside the country’s capital on Tuesday morning.

Flight tracking data from FlightRadar24 indicated the planes landed near Minsk at around 8 a.m. local time. Both planes had their transponders turned off before landing, obscuring their exact landing location.

Two sources – a senior European intelligence official and a source familiar with Prigozhin’s planes – confirmed the jets are linked to the Wagner boss but did not know if he was on board.

Questions over Prigozhin’s whereabouts have been circling for days, since the Wagner chief’s short-lived rebellion triggered a weekend of chaos for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Saturday, troops from Prigozhin’s private military group seized control of a military base and moved in convoy toward Moscow, facing little resistance, in a remarkable and unexpected challenge to the Kremlin leader.

The march was suddenly called off when a supposed deal was struck that would see Prigozhin move to neighboring Belarus.

Though Putin said Saturday those on “path of treason” or armed rebellion would be punished, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) later announced it was dropping the criminal case against the Wagner paramilitary group.

Then on Monday, Putin thanked Wagner fighters for making the “right decision” to halt their advance and offered them three options: sign contracts with the Defense Ministry or other law enforcement agencies, return home or “go to Belarus.”

Possible Wagner investigation

In Moscow Tuesday, Putin told Russian security personnel they had “virtually stopped a civil war” in responding to the failed insurrection.

The Russian leader also alluded to a possible investigation into claims that billions of rubles of state funds were spent on Wagner, saying “we” will “deal with that.”

Speaking to security personnel, Putin claimed Wagner had been completely funded by the Russian state, with 86 billion rubles (about $1 billion) funneled to the group in the past 12 months. Putin claimed the Concord company, owned by Prigozhin, received 80 billion rubles from Moscow for supplying food and providing food services.

“I want everyone to know about this: the maintenance of the entire Wagner group was fully provided for by the state,” Putin claimed. “But I hope that through its work, nobody has taken anything.”

Despite Putin’s claims, the shadowy Wagner mercenary force had long served Moscow’s interests, advancing Putin’s foreign policy and influence, particularly in Africa.

Some of Prigozhin’s operations appeared to be partly self-funded, with various shell companies staking claims to oil and gas facilities and vying for access to gold and other riches. In February, the European Union sanctioned a Russian national and a Wagner subsidiary in Sudan, Meroe Gold, for facilitating the exploitation of Sudan’s gold wealth, after a CNN investigation into the group’s activities last July.

On Tuesday, the US Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on four companies and one person tied to Wagner that “have engaged in illicit gold dealings to fund the Wagner Group to sustain and expand its armed forces, including in Ukraine and Africa.”

“The Wagner Group funds its brutal operations in part by exploiting natural resources in countries like the Central African Republic and Mali. The United States will continue to target the Wagner Group’s revenue streams to degrade its expansion and violence in Africa, Ukraine, and anywhere else,” Under Secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence Brian Nelson said in a statement.

Belarus ‘not building’ Wagner camps

Belarusian President Lukashenko said Tuesday that Wagner had been offered some abandoned land inside Belarus if they needed it but denied building camps on its territory for the Russian mercenaries.

“We are not building any camps yet. But if they want, we will accommodate them. Set up tents, please. But for now they are in Luhansk [in eastern Ukraine] in their camps,” he said.

Lukashenko – a longtime ally of the Russian President – also claimed he convinced Putin not to “destroy” Wagner and Prigozhin, talking up his role in halting the weekend rebellion.

He described his view of the negotiations that led to Prigozhin ending his march towards Moscow, saying he spoke on the phone to the Wagner boss throughout Saturday.

“I also realized there was a harsh decision taken – to destroy. I suggested Putin not to hurry. Let’s talk with Prigozhin, with his commanders,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian state media.

Lukashenko said he managed to get hold of Prigozhin and, according to his account, warned he would be “crushed like a bug” if Wagner troops continued their advance to the Russian capital.

The Kremlin has credited Lukashenko with helping to deescalate the situation, though the Belarus leader’s account of events has not been corroborated by Putin or Prigozhin.

Lukashenko also said most of the tactical nuclear weapons that Russia plans to station in Belarus have already arrived but Wagner troops would not be guarding them.

“In terms of nuclear weapons, most of them were already brought to Belarus, I won’t say how many. It’s surprising that they didn’t trace it,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarus state media.

“Russians and Belarusians are guarding it… No Wagner fighters will guard nuclear weapons. This is our task.”

If Lukashenko’s remarks are correct, it would be the first time Belarus has had nuclear weapons on its territory since the early 1990s.

Earlier this year, Putin announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and that Moscow would complete the construction of a special storage facility for the weapons by the beginning of July.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Anna Chernova, Rob Picheta, Clare Sebastian and Stephanie Halasz contributed reporting.

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