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Belarus leader: I urged mercenary Prigozhin to 'watch out'

Makeshift memorial in Moscow for Wagner's Prigozhin believed killed in plane crash

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday that he had warned Russian mercenary chiefs Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin to watch out for possible threats to their lives, and he insisted that Wagner fighters would remain in Belarus.

President Putin initially vowed to crush Prigozhin's June mutiny, comparing it to the wartime turmoil that ushered in the revolution of 1917, but hours later a deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to Belarus.

Lukashenko, who helped broker the deal, used prison slang shortly after the mutiny to say that he had persuaded Putin not to "wipe out" the mercenary who was listed as a passenger on a private jet which crashed on Wednesday north of Moscow.

Prigozhin, Lukashenko said on Friday, had twice dismissed concerns raised by the Belarusian leader about possible threats to his life.

Lukashenko said that during the mutiny he had warned Prigozhin that he would "die" if he continued to march on Moscow, to which he said Prigozhin had answered:

"'To hell with it - I will die'."

Then, Lukashenko said, when Prigozhin and Utkin, who helped found Wagner and was also listed as a passenger on the plane which crashed, had come to see him, he had warned them both:

"Lads - you watch out".

It was not exactly clear from Lukashenko's words, which were reported by state news agency BELTA, when that conversation took place.

Lukashenko, both an old acquaintance of Prigozhin and close ally of Russia, said that Putin had nothing to do with the plane crash.

"I know Putin: he is calculating, very calm, even tardy," Lukashenko said. "I cannot imagine that Putin did it, that Putin is to blame. It's just too rough and unprofessional a job."

The Kremlin said on Friday that Western suggestions Prigozhin had been killed on its orders were an "absolute lie" while declining to definitively confirm his death, citing the need to wait for test results.

Lukashenko said Wagner fighters would remain in Belarus.

"Wager lived, Wagner is living and Wagner will live in Belarus," Lukashenko said. "The core remains here."

"As long as we need this unit, they will live and work with us," he said.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)