February 28, 2024

Russia bombs busy Ukraine restaurant as Wagner moves to Belarus

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Rescuers carry a woman pulled from the debris at the site of the restaurant attack on Tuesday [Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters]

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Deadly attack comes as the fallout from the Wagner mutiny continued with the leader of the mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin, arriving in neighbouring Belarus.

A Russian rocket attack on a bustling restaurant inflicted dozens of casualties in eastern Ukraine, as Russia’s now-exiled Wagner Group raised red flags among Baltic states after apparently rebasing in Belarus.

At least four people were killed and more than 40 wounded in the strike that hit the restaurant in Kramatorsk city, Ukraine officials said on Tuesday.

The death toll could rise sharply as more victims may still be buried under the debris.

The building was reduced to a twisted web of metal beams. Two men screamed in frenzied tones for a tow rope, then ran back towards the rubble.

“There were a lot of people in there – there are children under the rubble,” said one diner who gave his name as Yevgen. He was eating with friends at the Ria Pizza restaurant when it was hit.

In tears, a witness Natalia said her half-brother Nikita, 23, was trapped inside. “They can’t get him out, he was covered” by debris, she said.

Emergency services scurried in and out of the shattered restaurant as residents stood outside surveying the damage from the attack, which occurred just before 8pm local time (17:00 GMT).

Kramatorsk is a significant city west of the front lines in Donetsk province. The city has been a frequent target of Russian attacks, including a raid on its railway station in April 2022 that killed 63 people.

‘Squashed like a bug’

The attack came as the fallout from the Wagner mutiny continued on Tuesday with the leader of the mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin, arriving in neighbouring Belarus, according to President Alexander Lukashenko.

Prigozhin, 62, said he launched the mutiny to save his armed group after being ordered to place it under the command of the defence ministry, which he has cast as ineffectual in its conduct of the war in Ukraine.

His fighters halted their campaign on Saturday to avert bloodshed after nearly reaching Moscow in a convoy of tanks.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years while relying on Russian subsidies and support, portrayed the uprising as the latest development in the clash between Prigozhin and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu.

He said he told Prigozhin he would be “squashed like a bug” if he tried to attack Moscow, and warned the Kremlin would never agree to his demands to remove Shoigu and his top generals.

A plane linked to Prigozhin was shown on a flight tracking service taking off from the southern Russian city of Rostov early Tuesday and landing in Belarus.

Lukashenko said his country would accommodate Wagner fighters who wanted to go there.

“We offered them one of the abandoned military bases. Please – we have a fence, we have everything – put up your tents,” Lukashenko was quoted by the state-run news agency BELTA.

‘Very concerning’

The prospect of Wagner establishing a base in Belarus was immediately greeted with alarm by some of its neighbours. Latvia and Lithuania called for NATO to strengthen its eastern borders in response, and Polish President Andrzej Duda called the move a “negative signal”.

“This is really serious and very concerning, and we have to make very strong decisions. It requires a very, very tough answer of NATO,” Duda said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed the military alliance is ready to defend itself against any threat.

“It’s too early to make any final judgment about the consequences of the fact that Prigozhin has moved to Belarus, and that most likely some of his forces will also be located in Belarus,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

“But we have sent a clear message to Moscow and Minsk that NATO is there to protect every ally, every inch of NATO territory.”

Could be a trap?

Russian authorities said on Tuesday they closed a criminal investigation into the aborted armed rebellion led by Prigozhin and are pressing no charges against him or his troops.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, said its investigation found those involved in the mutiny, which lasted less than 24 hours, “ceased activities directed at committing the crime,” so the case would not be pursued.

It was the latest twist in a series of stunning events that have brought the gravest threat so far to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power amid the 16-month-old war in Ukraine.

In a military ceremony, Putin told about 2,500 Russian security personnel the people and the armed forces stood together in opposition to the rebel mercenaries. “You have saved our motherland from upheaval. In fact, you have stopped a civil war,” he said.

Putin was joined by Shoigu whose dismissal had been one of the mutineers’ main demands.

He also praised Wagner troops’ action in Ukraine and credited those who “didn’t engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink”.

That was “likely in an effort to retain them” in the fight in Ukraine because Moscow needs “trained and effective manpower” as it faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive, according to a Washington-based think tank.

**AlJazeera**

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