A jet linked to Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Belarus from Russia on Tuesday, believed to be carrying him to exile three days after he led an aborted mutiny against the Russian military.
Flight tracking website Flightradar24 showed an Embraer Legacy 600 jet, bearing identification codes that match a plane linked to Prigozhin in US sanctions documents, descending to landing altitude near the Belarus capital Minsk. It first appeared on the tracking site above Rostov, the southern Russian city Prigozhin's fighters captured on Saturday.
Shortly afterwards, Russia's RIA state news agency reported that the authorities had dropped a criminal case against Prigozhin's Wagner group, because "the participants had ceased actions directly aimed at committing the crime".
Under a deal agreed late on Saturday that defused the crisis, the Kremlin said fighters who took part in the mutiny would not be prosecuted. Prigozhin said he would go to Belarus at the invitation of its president, Alexander Lukashenko. But details of his proposed journey into exile were not made public and his whereabouts remained unconfirmed for three days.
He was last seen in public on Saturday night, smiling and high-fiving bystanders as he rode out of Rostov in the back of an SUV after ordering his men to stand down.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in address on Monday night that the mutiny leaders had betrayed their motherland, although he did not mention Prigozhin by name. Putin said Wagner fighters would be permitted to establish themselves in Belarus, join the Russian military or go home.
Demonstration of protest
Prigozhin, 62, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose Wagner mercenaries fought the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war, said he launched the mutiny to save his group after being ordered to place it under command of the defence ministry.
His fighters had halted their campaign on Saturday, to avert bloodshed after nearly reaching Moscow. They had been forced to shoot down aircraft that attacked them on the way, he said.
"We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country," Prigozhin said in an audio message on Monday.
In Putin's overnight speech, the president's first public comments since the mutiny, Putin confirmed that Russian pilots had been killed fighting against the march on Moscow. He thanked Russians for showing patriotic solidarity in the face of it.
Russia's enemies wanted to see the country "choke in bloody civil strife" but Russsia would not succumb to "any blackmail, any attempt to create internal turmoil," Putin said.
Russian leaders have tried to convey that the situation is returning to normal after the aborted mutiny. Putin met on Monday night with the heads of security services, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. One of Prigozhin's principal demands had been that Shoigu be sacked, along with Russia's top general.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address that the military had made advances on Monday in all sectors of the front line, calling it a "happy day".
Kyiv hopes the chaos caused by the mutiny attempt in Russia will undermine Russian defences as Ukraine presses on with a counteroffensive to recapture occupied territory. It claimed on Monday to have captured a ninth small village in the south where it has been advancing since early June.