The smell of freshly cut wood floated over a newly built Belarusian camp site that could end up housing Russia’s Wagner fighters after their short-lived rebellion against the Russian army’s leaders last month.

With Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko acting as mediator, the Kremlin struck a deal with Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to end the mutiny and see him move to neighbouring Belarus along with some of his men.

But on Thursday, Lukashenko cast that deal into doubt when he revealed that neither Prigozhin nor his mercenaries were in the country.

“If you’re looking for them, you won’t find them here,” said Leonid Kasinsky, an aide to the Belarusian defence ministry.

Kasinsky was showing the camp site in central Belarus to a group of foreign journalists, who received a rare invitation to the tightly controlled country for a roundtable interview with Lukashenko.

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Around him, the 300 tents that could welcome around 5,000 people were empty -- apart from one, where some guards could be seen resting.

Kasinsky said the tents were set up in preparation for planned exercises in the autumn.

A view of a tent camp site that, according to Belarusian Defence Ministry officials, could be offered as one of the spots to house Wagner fighters on July 7, 2023. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP

Speculation that the camp could be used for Wagner fighters surged after satellite images circulating in media reports showed construction work there around the time of the mutiny.

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Lukashenko denied Belarus was building a new facility but said he had offered former military sites -- including the one in Tsel -- to Wagner.

“Given that the base is ready... (Wagner) may be offered it,” Kasinsky said.

A view of a tent camp site that, according to Belarusian Defence Ministry officials, could be offered as one of the spots to house Wagner fighters on July 7, 2023. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP

- ‘If it has to be done’ -

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The potential arrival of thousands of Russian mercenary fighters divided locals in the town of Asipovichy, near Tsel.

Men from the Wagner private mercenary army have been accused of abuses in many countries, including Ukraine, the Central African Republic and Syria.

“I am scared... I want peace, I want my children to grow up. That’s all I can say,” said a woman who declined to disclose any personal details for fear of reprisal.

Since the 2020 protests against his re-election, Lukashenko has increased the repression of critical voices.

People walk past a sign "I Love Asaipovichi" in the town of Asipovichi of the Mogilev Region in Belarus on July 7, 2023. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP

Other residents, however, said they were not worried.

“I don’t have any concerns. If it needs to be done, it needs to be done,” said 45-year-old kindergarten worker Yelena Vinglinskaya.

Belarus itself has had a contentious history with Wagner.

In the lead-up to Lukashenko’s disputed 2020 re-election, Belarus actually arrested around 30 Wagner fighters accused of plotting to destabilise the country.

- Up to Moscow -

Since then, Wagner has come out of the shadows, particularly during the Ukraine offensive.

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Prigozhin finally admitted he had founded the private army and became a firebrand critic of Russia’s military top brass.

His mercenaries led the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which exposed rivalries between Prigozhin and the regular army.

These tensions culminated with Prigozhin’s armed rebellion on June 23-24, the biggest challenge yet to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority.

Vinglinskaya said Wagner’s presence in Belarus “could be another way to protect the population”.

Kasinsky agreed. “I don’t see any reason why we would have conflict with the Wagner group,” he said.

“We are not going to compete with anyone. We’re going to get their unique combat experience,” he told journalists.

But much still remains unclear about the deal that was meant to end the mutiny and that allowed Lukashenko to position himself as a power broker.

“The final decision on where they get stationed will be up to Wagner and its commanders,” Kasinsky said.

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