Putin thanks Russian troops as Prigozhin begins exile in Belarus
Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal that ended a brief mutiny against the Russian military by his fighters, state news agency BELTA said, quoting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A plane linked to Prigozhin and believed to be carrying him into exile landed in Belarus from the southern Russian city of Rostov early on Tuesday, a flight tracking service said.
"I see Prigozhin is already flying in on this plane," Lukashenko was quoted as saying by BELTA. "Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today."
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin praised Russia's armed forces for preventing a civil war as he sought to reassert his authority after the mutiny led by Prigozhin in protest against the Russian military's handling of the conflict in Ukraine.
Russian authorities also dropped a criminal case against his Wagner Group mercenary force, state news agency RIA reported, apparently fulfilling another condition of the deal brokered by Lukashenko late on Saturday that defused the crisis.
Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose mercenaries have fought the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war and taken heavy casualties, had earlier said he would go to neighbouring Belarus at the invitation of Lukashenko, a close Putin ally.
Flight tracking service Flightradar24's website showed an Embraer Legacy 600 jet, bearing identification codes that match a plane linked to Prigozhin in U.S. sanctions documents, descending to landing altitude near the Belarus capital Minsk.
It first appeared on the tracking site above Rostov, the southern Russian city Prigozhin's fighters had captured during the mutiny.
Prigozhin was seen on Saturday night smiling and high-fiving bystanders as he rode out of Rostov in the back of an SUV after ordering his men to stand down. He has not yet been seen in public in Belarus.
'YOU HAVE STOPPED CIVIL WAR'
Putin meanwhile told some 2,500 security personnel mustered for a ceremony on a square in the Kremlin complex that the people and the armed forces had stood together in opposition to the rebel mercenaries.
"You have defended the constitutional order, the lives, security and freedom of our citizens. You have saved our Motherland from upheaval. In fact, you have stopped a civil war," he said.
Putin was joined by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose dismissal had been one of the mutineers' main demands.
Putin also requested a minute of silence to honour Russian military pilots killed in the revolt. The fighters had shot down several aircraft during their run towards Moscow, although they faced no resistance on the ground.
On Monday night, Putin said in a televised address that the mutiny leaders had betrayed their motherland, although he did not mention Prigozhin by name. Wagner fighters would be permitted to establish themselves in Belarus, join the Russian military or go home, he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing on Tuesday the deal ending the mutiny was being implemented. He also said he did not know how many Wagner fighters would sign contracts with the Defence Ministry.
He dismissed the idea that Putin's grip on power had been shaken by the mutiny, calling such thoughts "hysteria".
DEMONSTRATION OF PROTEST
Prigozhin, 62, said he launched the mutiny to save his group after being ordered to place it under command of the defence ministry.
His fighters had halted their campaign on Saturday to avert bloodshed after nearly reaching Moscow, and regretted being forced to shoot down aircraft on the way, he said.
"We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country," Prigozhin said in an audio message on Monday.
In Putin's overnight speech he thanked Russians for showing patriotic solidarity.
Russia's enemies wanted to see the country "choke in bloody civil strife" but Russia would not succumb to "any blackmail, any attempt to create internal turmoil," Putin said.
Russian leaders have tried to convey that the situation is returning to normal after the aborted mutiny. Putin met on Monday night with the heads of security services, including Defence Minister Shoigu.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address that the military had made advances on Monday in all sectors of the front line, calling it a "happy day".
Kyiv hopes the chaos caused by the mutiny attempt in Russia will undermine Russian defences as Ukraine presses on with a counteroffensive to recapture occupied territory. It claimed on Monday to have captured a ninth village in the south where it has been advancing since early June.
Explosions were heard in the central Ukrainian central city of Kremenchuk after a Russian air strike on Tuesday, a Ukrainian air force spokesman said.
Kremenchuk is the site of a Ukrainian oil refinery that has been attacked repeatedly by Russia since it invaded Ukraine last year. Ukrainian officials have said it is no longer functioning.