By Mariya Knight and Chris Lau, CNN
Atlanta/Hong Kong (CNN) — Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has invited Wagner Group mercenaries to his country to train its military.
Lukashenko alluded to the invitation in a speech Friday dedicated to Belarus’ Independence Day, according to state news agency Belta.
“Unfortunately, they (Wagner mercenaries) are not here,” Lukashenko said. “And if their instructors, as I already told them, come and pass on combat experience to us, we will accept this experience.”
The invite from Lukashenko comes just a week after the Belarusian leader was credited with defusing an armed insurrection by Wagner forces against Moscow.
In a stunning series of events that posed the greatest threat to the Russian President Vladimir Putin in years, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had marched his forces toward the Russian capital, taking control of military facilities in two Russian cities, in what he said was a response to a Russian military attack on a Wagner camp.
The crisis was defused only after Lukashenko brokered a deal under which Prigozhin would move to Belarus. As part of the same deal Wagner troops were given the options of either signing up to the Russian military or law enforcement agencies, returning to their family and friends, or going to Belarus.
In his speech Friday Lukashenko said he was not afraid of Wagner Group members as he had “known them for a long time.”
“These are people who fought all over the world to establish a normal civilization. The West hates them to the core,” he said.
He also warned a “world-scale military-political crisis unprecedented in the history of mankind” was brewing, and criticized the West for not recognizing the need for dialogue to resolve it.
He accused the European Union and the United States of “arming Poland at an accelerated pace” and claimed the West was making Poland into “a proxy training ground” to use it against Belarus and Russia, likening it to Ukraine.
“Thus, another hotbed of tension is being created, another stronghold is being created for the aggression of the most aggressive country in the world and, unfortunately, the most powerful – the United States,” he said.
Where is Prigozhin?
Earlier this week, the Belarusian leader claimed he had convinced Putin not to “destroy” the Wagner group and its chief Prigozhin, whom he said would have been “crushed like a bug” had Wagner troops continued their advance to the Russian capital.
But the exact whereabouts of Prigozhin remain unclear.
The Wagner leader was last spotted leaving the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don last Saturday, after abruptly calling off his troops’ march on Moscow.
He released an audio message Monday, explaining his decision to turn his troops back.
Lukashenko has said the Wagner chief arrived in Belarus Tuesday. While there are no videos or photos showing Prigozhin in Belarus, satellite imagery of an airbase outside Minsk showed two planes linked to Prigozhin landing there on Tuesday morning.
Media group shut down
Lukashenko’s speech came as a Russian media group associated with Prigozhin shut down its operations.
Prigozhin’s Patriot media group, which includes the Federal News Agency, People’s News, Economy Today, Nevskiye Novosti, and Politics Today, would be “closing and leaving the country’s information agenda,” said Yevgeny Zubarev, CEO of the Federal News Agency on Friday.
According to Zubarev, the total traffic of the Patriot suite of websites has so far amounted to 300 million unique visitors.
Russian state media TASS reported Friday that the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor has restricted access to media sites belonging to Patriot.
Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company Wagner, had recently held the position of deputy head of the Patriot’s supervisory board.
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