Russia's Wagner mercenaries halt prisoner recruitment campaign - Prigozhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia's Wagner mercenary group has stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, Wagner's founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Thursday.

"The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped," Prigozhin said in a response to a request for comment from a Russian media outlet published on social media.

"We are fulfilling all our obligations to those who work for us now," he said.

Wagner began recruiting prisoners in Russia's sprawling penal system in summer 2022, with Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur who served nine years in prison during the Soviet Union, offering convicts a pardon if they survived six months in Ukraine.

Wagner has not provided information on how many convicts joined its ranks, but Russian penal service figures published in November showed the country's prison population dropping by over 20,000 between August and November, the largest drop in over a decade.

According to figures published in January, the decline had largely stopped.

In December, Reuters reported that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Wagner had 40,000 convict fighters deployed in Ukraine, making up the vast majority of the group's personnel in the country.

The Wagner Group has in recent months played an increasingly prominent role in Russia's war in Ukraine, with the mercenary force spearheading a months-long assault on the Donetsk region town of Bakhmut.

Previously secretive, Wagner and its founder Prigozhin have assumed an ever more public profile against the backdrop of the fighting in Ukraine, with Prigozhin criticising Russia's military leadership and certain officials.

In January, Russian state media released footage of Prigozhin meeting the first group of convict fighters to complete their stints in Ukraine and receive pardons.

In one video, Prigozhin was seen telling fighters: "Remember life has given you this chance: you didn’t dodge the honour, you didn’t arse it up: you defended the Motherland, all of you were ready to die in these past 180 days".

(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)