Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday that a Zambian student who died in Ukraine had been fighting for his Wagner Private Military Group.
Russia previously notified Zambia that Lemekhani Nyirenda had been killed on the battlefield in Ukraine in September, prompting Zambia to ask Moscow for more details and an explanation of how he had ended up fighting in the war.
Nyirenda’s father said he had been serving a nine-year jail sentence on the outskirts of Moscow for a drug offence when he was “conscripted” to fight. His family said it was unclear how he was recruited or by whom.
On Tuesday, Prigozhin’s Concord catering group said Nyirenda had been recruited by Wagner. Prigozhin and other Wagner representatives have toured Russian prisons offering amnesty in return for signing up to fight for Russia in Ukraine.
“Yes, I remember this guy well,” Prigozhin said in a written response to a question from a reporter as to whether the Zambian had been fighting for Wagner.
Prigozhin said Nyirenda had died a “hero” and that he was “one of the first to break into the enemy trenches on Sept. 22”.
Reuters was unable to verify the circumstances of Nyirenda’s death or Prigozhin’s assertion that he had joined Wagner voluntarily.
Having for years denied his links to Wagner and operated in the shadows, Prigozhin has in recent months adopted a more assertive presence on the Russian domestic scene, criticising the military leadership, acknowledging that he had founded Wagner and admitting to interfering in US elections.