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Russia drops charges against mercenary leader and others involved in brief rebellion

In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.
AP
In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.

Russian authorities said Tuesday they have closed a criminal investigation into the armed rebellion led by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, with no charges against him or any of the other participants.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, said its investigation found that those involved in the mutiny "ceased activities directed at committing the crime."

Over the weekend, the Kremlin pledged not to prosecute Prigozhin and his fighters after he stopped the revolt on Saturday, even though President Vladimir Putin had branded them as traitors.

The charge of mounting an armed mutiny carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. Prigozhin escaping prosecution poses a stark contrast to how the Kremlin has been treating those staging anti-government protests.

Many opposition figures in Russia have received length prison terms and are serving time in penal colonies notorious for harsh conditions.

The whereabouts of Prigozhin remained a mystery Tuesday, The Kremlin has said Prigozhin would be exiled to neighboring Belarus, but neither he nor the Belarusian authorities have confirmed that.

An independent Belarusian military monitoring project Belaruski Hajun said a business jet that Prigozhin reportedly uses landed near Minsk on Tuesday morning.

On Monday night, Putin once again blasted organizers of the rebellion as traitors who played into the hands of Ukraine's government and its allies.

The media team for Prigozhin, the 62-year-old head of the Wagner private military contractor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prigozhin's short-lived insurrection over the weekend — the biggest challenge to Putin's rule in more than two decades in power — has rattled Russia's leadership.

In his nationally televised speech, Putin sought to project stability and control, criticizing the uprising's "organizers," without naming Prigozhin. He also praised Russian unity in the face of the crisis, as well as rank-and-file Wagner fighters for not letting the situation descend into "major bloodshed."

Earlier in the day, Prigozhin defended his actions in a defiant audio statement. He again taunted the Russian military but said he hadn't been seeking to stage a coup against Putin.

In another show of stability and control, the Kremlin on Monday night showed Putin meeting with top security, law enforcement and military officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin had sought to remove.

Putin thanked his team for their work over the weekend, implying support for the embattled Shoigu. Earlier, the authorities released a video of Shoigu reviewing troops in Ukraine.

It also wasn't clear whether he would be able to keep his mercenary force. In his speech, Putin offered Prigozhin's fighters to either come under Russia's Defense Ministry's command, leave service or go to Belarus.

Prigozhin said Monday, without elaborating, that the Belarusian leadership proposed solutions that would allow Wagner to operate "in a legal jurisdiction," but it was unclear what that meant.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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