The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has accused the country’s military of launching a strike on his troops, claims that mark an astonishing escalation of infighting inside Russia.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said a “huge number” of his fighters had been killed and that he would lead a “march for justice” to exact revenge.
It follows an earlier tirade in which he blamed defence minister Sergei Shoigu for starting the war in Ukraine.
Moscow denied attacking Wagner forces.
In a statement, the Russian defence ministry said that “all reports by Prigozhin spread on social media” of Russian strikes on Wagner camps were “not true and are an information provocation”.
Russian state media also reports that the FSB, Russia’s security services, have opened a criminal case against Prigozhin, accusing him of “calling for an armed rebellion”.
The Wagner Group is a paramilitary organisation that has been fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine. In recent months, Prigozhin has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of Russia’s military leadership.
In an audio message posted to the social media platform Telegram, he said “the evil which the Russian military leadership carries must be stopped”.
“Those who killed our lads, and tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers [in the war in Ukraine] will be punished,” he said.
“I ask you not to resist. Anyone who does will be considered a threat and destroyed. That goes for any checkpoints and aviation on our way.
“Presidential power, the government, the police and Russian guard will work as usual.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice. Our actions do not interfere with the troops in any way.”
In a statement responding to the message, the FSB demanded “an immediate stop to illegal actions” by Prigozhin. The Kremlin has also said “necessary measures are being taken”, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
It comes after a video message in May in which Prigozhin stood surrounded by the bodies of his troops and berated Mr Shoigu – as well as Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov – for not providing them with enough ammunition.
Earlier on Friday, he said the war in Ukraine had been started “so that Shoigu could become a Marshal”.
“The Ministry of Defence is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president and tell a story that there was some crazy aggression by Ukraine, that – together with the whole Nato bloc – Ukraine was planning to attack us,” he said.