Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said he warned Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin twice to watch out for threats to his life.
“The first time was when I phoned him and negotiations (were taking) place while they were marching on Moscow,” Lukashenko told reporters in comments carried by Belarusian state news agency Belta on Friday.
“I told him: ‘Yevgeny, do you understand that you will doom your people and will perish yourself?’ He had just come back from the front. On an impulse he said: ‘I will die then, damn it!”
The longtime Belarusian leader’s comments came just days after a plane believed to be carrying Prigozhin, the notorious head of the mercenary group Wagner, crashed in a field northwest of Moscow while en route to St. Petersburg.
The crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin launched a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, posing an unprecedented challenge to the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is not clear yet what caused the crash, but US and western intelligence officials that CNN has spoken to believe it was deliberate. Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation.
The Kremlin on Friday denied any involvement in the plane crash and no evidence has been presented that points to the involvement of Putin or Russian security services.
The Belarusian leader said that during second time he spoke with Prigozhin he warned him “in no uncertain terms to watch it.”
Lukashenko did not say when the meeting took place. He added that Dmitriy Utkin, a long-term lieutenant of Prigozhin’s, had come alongside Prigozhin.
The Belarusian President said he suggested to Prigozhin that he could talk with Putin and “guarantee full security” in Belarus if he was concerned for his security, Belta reported.
“I said: ‘If you are afraid of something, I will talk to President (Vladimir) Putin and we will extract you to Belarus. We guarantee full security to you in Belarus.’ And credit where credit is due, Yevgeny Prigozhin has never asked me to separately pay attention to security matters,” Lukashenko said, according to the agency.
Russian authorities have yet to officially confirm Prigozhin’s death, though Putin spoke publicly about him in the past tense on Thursday.
Prigozhin and Utkin were both on the list of passengers released by the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency, and both the Pentagon and British Ministry of Defense said it’s likely the Wagner leader was killed in the rash.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said testing is underway to determine who was on board.
Lukashenko previously said that he “could not imagine” that Putin was behind the apparent death of Prigozhin.
“I can’t say who did it. I won’t even become a lawyer for my older brother. But I know Putin – he is a prudent, very calm and slow-paced person when making decisions on other less complex issues. Therefore, I cannot imagine that Putin did it, that he is to blame,” Lukashenko told journalists. “It was too rough, unprofessional work, for that matter,” he added.
According to Belta, Lukashenko said Prigozhin had never asked him for security guarantees following the attempted mutiny two months ago.
“I don’t have to ensure Prigozhin’s safety. This is first of all. Secondly, the conversation (between Prigozhin and Lukashenko) never centered on this,” he said.
He also said Wagner will “live in Belarus,” adding that “within a few days everyone will be here,” referring to Wagner fighters and the deal he struck to host the group after the failed uprising.
“Up to 10 thousand people,” he said. “As long as we need this unit, they will live and work with us.”
Referencing satellite imagery that purported to show camp sites for Wagner fighters being dismantled recently, Lukashenko said: “Why are we removing extra tents, we don’t need so many of them. The core base remains here, someone went on vacation, someone decided to live on the sidelines, but all telephones, addresses, passwords, and appearances are known.”
Prigozhin’s death, however, has thrown Wagner’s future – both in Belarus and elsewhere – in doubt.