The death toll from a Russian missile strike on a restaurant in eastern Ukraine rose to nine on Wednesday as Kiev downplayed the impact of the Wagner mutiny on the fighting.
Three children were among those killed at the Ria Pizza restaurant, while at least 56 people were injured in the attack.
The eatery is popular with soldiers and journalists alike in the city of Kramatorsk, one of the largest in the east still under Ukrainian control.
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“Search and rescue operations and debris removal are ongoing,” the Ukrainian state emergency service said on social media.
“The bodies of 9 dead, including 3 children, have been pulled from under the rubble,” the newspaper said.
Days after Wagner led Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted rebellion, widely seen as the biggest threat to Kremlin authority in decades, Kiev said the mutiny’s influence on the fighting was minimal.
“Unfortunately, Prigozhin gave up too quickly. So there was no time for this demoralizing effect to penetrate the Russian trenches,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CNN in a video published Wednesday.
As Belarus welcomed Prigozhin into exile on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to bolster his authority by thanking regular troops for preventing civil war.
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But as Moscow announced preparations to disarm Wagner fighters, Putin’s nemesis, imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, launched a sharp attack on the president in his first remarks since the paramilitary’s aborted mutiny.
“There is no greater threat to Russia than the Putin regime,” Navalny said on social media.
– ‘Civil War Stopped’ –
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However, Putin’s supporters insisted that his rule was not weakened by the uprising.
Asked whether Putin’s power was diminished by the sight of Wagner’s rebel mercenaries seizing a military headquarters, advancing on Moscow and shooting down military planes along the way, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused political commentators of exaggeration, adding: “We are disagree.”
Putin himself tried to portray the weekend’s dramatic events as a victory for the Russian military.
“You have effectively stopped the civil war,” Putin told troops from the Defense Ministry, National Guard, FSB security service and Interior Ministry who had gathered in a Kremlin courtyard to observe a minute of silence. hold for airmen killed by Wagner.
In a separate meeting with defense officials, Putin confirmed that Wagner was fully funded by the Russian federal budget despite operating as an independent company, adding that Moscow alone had paid the group 86.262 billion rubles in the past year since the attack on Ukraine. (approximately $1 billion) in salaries.
The feud between Wagner and the army had escalated for months, with Prigozhin making increasingly scathing statements against the generals’ handling of the offensive in Ukraine, blaming them for thousands of Russian losses.
Russian officials have been trying to put the crisis behind them for three days, with the FSB dropping charges against regular Wagner troops and the military preparing to disarm the group.
But questions remain about how the Kremlin allowed the violence of its operation in Ukraine to spill over into Russia.
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is seeking credit for his intervention to broker Wagner’s U-turn on the road to Moscow, and on Tuesday criticized Russia’s handling of the issue.
– ‘We could waste him’ –
Speaking to his own military officials, Lukashenko said Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday and revealed he had urged Putin not to kill the rogue mercenary.
“I told Putin, we can waste him, no problem. If not on the first try, then on the second. I told him, don’t do this,” Lukashenko said, according to state media.
In his speech, Putin also stressed that the uprising had not forced Russia to withdraw its units from Ukraine, where fighting continued as Kiev’s brigades continued their counter-offensive in the east and south of their country.
The bloody conflict is now 16 months old, with massive casualties on both sides and a rising number of civilians.
Also on Tuesday, the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine said it had evidence that Russian troops had summarily executed at least 77 detained civilians.
“It is a war crime … it is also a gross violation of international human rights law,” said Matilda Bogner, head of the mission.
Meanwhile, the United States announced a new $500 million tranche of weapons to bolster Ukraine’s nascent counter-offensive, including armored vehicles, precision munitions and demining equipment.