Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin says a Zambian student who died in Ukraine had been fighting for his Wagner Private Military Group.
Zambia said it stood by a previous statement asking Moscow for an explanation of how Lemekhani Nyirenda, 23, went from serving a prison sentence near the Russian capital to dying at war in September.
In response to questions, the Zambian ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation said it was “firmly engaged” in trying to get the man’s remains repatriated.
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”.
Prigozhin said he had asked the jailed student why he wanted to join the fight, given a high chance he would be killed, and that the Zambian citizen responded: “You Russians helped us Africans gain independence for many years. When it was difficult for us, you extended your hand to us and continue to do so now … The least I could do, probably, to pay our debts is go to war with you.”
Zambian Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo said earlier this month that Russian officials had informed the Zambian government of the death of Nyirenda who was a government-sponsored student before he was sentenced in Russia for unspecified crimes in April 2020.
He said the Zambian Embassy in the Russian capital of Moscow had established that Nyirenda died Sept. 22 and that his remains were transported to the Russian border town of Rostov ahead of repatriation to Zambia.
Before his prison sentence, Nyirenda was studying nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute.
He was serving his approximately nine-year sentence at a prison on the outskirts of Moscow, according to the Zambian government.
Reports have circulated that Russia — desperate for more manpower to support what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine — has offered freedom to convicts if they join the fight.
Russia has employed the Wagner Group, whose head Prigozhin is said to be a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and has admitted meddling in U.S. elections — in several armed conflicts worldwide.