Russian government accused mercenary chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, of armed mutiny on Friday after he alleged, without providing evidence, that the military leadership had killed a huge number of his fighters in an air strike and vowed to punish them.
The standoff, many of whose details remained unclear, looked like the biggest domestic crisis President Vladimir Putin has faced since he ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – something he called a “special military operation” – in February last year, Reuters reports.
Prigozhin claimed he had dispatched an armed convoy on a 1,200-km (750-mile) charge towards Moscow on Saturday to topple the military leadership.
Russian local officials said a military convoy was on the main motorway linking the southern part of European Russia, bordering Ukraine, with Moscow, and warned residents to avoid it.
Hours earlier, the Russian authorities accused Prigozhin of staging an armed mutiny after he alleged, without providing evidence, that the military leadership had killed a huge number of his fighters in an air strike, and vowed to punish them.
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The FSB domestic security service said it had opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny, a crime punishable with a jail term of up to 20 years.
Prigozhin, whose Wagner militia spearheaded the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last month, has for months been openly accusing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence and of denying Wagner ammunition and support in its battles in Ukraine.
As their feud appeared to come to a head, the ministry issued a statement saying Prigozhin’s accusations were “not true and are an informational provocation”.
Prigozhin said his actions were not a military coup. But in a frenzied series of audio messages, in which the sound of his voice sometimes varied and could not be independently verified, he appeared to suggest that 25,000 fighters were en route to oust the leaders of the defence establishment in Moscow.
Early on Friday, he had appeared to cross a new line in his increasingly vitriolic feud with the ministry, saying that Putin’s stated rationale for invading Ukraine was based on lies concocted by the army’s top brass.
About 2 a.m. (2300 GMT), Prigozhin posted a message on the Telegram app saying his forces had crossed into Russia from Ukraine and were in Rostov.
He said they were ready to “go all the way” against the top brass and destroy anyone who stood in their way.
Around the same time, the state news agency TASS quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying all Russia’s main security services were reporting to Putin “round the clock” on the fulfilment of his orders with respect to Prigozhin.
Security was being tightened in Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on his Telegram channel.
In his audio messages, Prigozhin said: “Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance…
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country,” he said, promising to destroy any checkpoints or air forces that got in Wagner’s way.