Russian mercenary chief vows retaliation after Russia says 2,000 fighters killed, Kremlin alleges ‘armed mutiny’

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The head of the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary group that has seen much of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine, on Friday accused Russia of killing thousands of fighters and vowed to stop the “evil” of the military leadership. Russia, in turn, announced that it was investigating the outspoken leader on charges of “armed rebellion.”

“Those who destroyed our boys, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one resist,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the paramilitary group, said in a series of messages on audio on their official Telegram channel.

In the audio, Prigozhin said, without providing evidence, that Russia’s military leadership was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 fighters.

He warned that his troops would move to punish Russia’s defense minister and urged the military not to offer resistance. Prigozhin declared that “it is not an armed rebellion, but a march of justice”.

Russian officials quickly launched a criminal investigation into Prigozhin “accused of armed mutiny.” Russian state TV interrupt regular programming to announce that Prigozhin’s claims were “false and nothing more than a provocation”.

Russia’s FSB security service accused Prigozhin of “stabbing the Russian military in the back” and accused him of calling for armed civil conflict.

The service called on Wagner’s fighters “not to make irreparable mistakes, to stop any forceful action against the Russian people, not to carry out Prigozhin’s criminal and treasonous orders, and to take measures to arrest him.”

President Vladimir Putin had been “informed of all the events surrounding Prigozhin. Necessary measures are being taken,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

In the audio messages on Telegram, the head of the Wagner Group accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket attack on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, where his soldiers are fighting on behalf of Russia against Ukrainian forces.

The claims have not been verified.

An unverified video posted on the Telegram channel “Razgruzka Wagner” (Wagner’s Combat Vest) showed a scene in a forest where small fires were burning and trees appeared to have been snapped by force.

It carried the caption: “A missile attack was launched on the fields of PMC Wagner. Many casualties. According to eyewitnesses, the attack was carried out from the rear, that is, it was carried out by the military of the Russian Ministry of Defense “.

Prigozhin vowed to avenge the incident: “We are 25,000 and we will find out why the chaos is happening in the country.”

But he also added: “This is not a military coup.”

Prigozhin, whose frequent rants on social media belie his limited role in the war as head of the private military company Wagner, has for months openly accused Russia’s defense minister and top general, Valery Gerasimov, of ‘rank incompetence.

On Friday, he rejected for the first time Russia’s basic justifications for invading Ukraine in February last year in what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation”.

“The war was necessary… like this [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu could become a marshal… so he could get a second ‘hero’ [of Russia] medal,” Prigozhin said in another audio message. “The war was not necessary to demilitarize or de-Nazify Ukraine.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not gone as expected. Russia has lost more than 100,000 fighters killed or wounded since December, the US estimated earlier this year.

Russia’s Defense Forces have been trying to lure men of military age to join in large numbers and avoid the need for a new wave of conscription.

The US and other Western nations have been providing military aid to Ukraine, including Germany, which sent Leopard 2 tanks to the country.

Russia has denied the US estimate of 100,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead.

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Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.

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