By Guy Faulconbridge and Filipp Lebedev
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Belarus said on Friday that fighters from the Wagner mercenary group were instructing its soldiers at a military range southeast of Minsk, the first indication that at least part of a deal to end a mutiny in Russia may be being implemented.
Some Wagner fighters have been in Belarus since at least Tuesday, two sources close to the fighters told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Wagner’s mutiny, in which it took control of a major military headquarters in southern Russia and then marched on Moscow, could have tipped Russia into civil war, according to President Vladimir Putin.
With fighters from one of the world’s most battle-hardened mercenary forces just 200 km (125 miles) from Moscow, the Kremlin struck a deal under which Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin stood down his mercenaries and agreed to move to Belarus in exchange for Russia dropping mutiny charges.
Yet until now, there has been no sign of Wagner fighters in Belarus and Prigozhin has not been seen in public since he left the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, though a private jet linked to him has moved between Belarus, Moscow and St Petersburg.
“Wagner fighters acted as instructors in a number of military disciplines,” the Belarusian defence ministry’s television channel said. State news agency BELTA also reported that Wagner were training Belarusian soldiers.
The ministry released a video showing what it said were Wagner fighters instructing Belarusian soldiers at a military range near the town of Osipovichi, about 90 km (56 miles) southeast of the capital Minsk.
At least one of the fighters identified as Wagner mercenaries had a Matryoshka doll symbol on his helmet which is used by some Wagner fighters.
When Reuters visited a tent camp near Osipovichi last week as part of a trip organised by Belarus there was no sign of Wagner fighters there.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko helped broker the June 24 deal, though he told reporters a week ago that Prigozhin was in Russia.
Wagner was founded in 2014 by Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer in Russia’s GRU military intelligence, as a way for Russia to dabble in wars around the world with full deniability from the Russian state.
Since the mutiny, Putin said the group had been financed by the Russian state.
Wagner helped Russia annex Crimea in 2014, fought Islamic State militants in Syria, operated in Central African Republic and Mali and took the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut for Russia earlier this year after both sides suffered heavy losses.
Putin offered Wagner mercenaries the opportunity to keep fighting at a meeting just days after their failed mutiny but suggested Prigozhin be moved aside in favour of a different commander, the Kommersant newspaper said.
The United States and its allies cast Wagner as one of the world’s most ruthless armed groups and say it has plundered natural resources across Africa.
Prigozhin says the West has no right to lecture Wagner after the exploitation Africa suffered under European colonial rule and the chaos he says the United States has sown across the Middle East.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and Filipp Lebedev in Tbilisi; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alex Richardson)
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