Drama in Russia
Drama in RussiaReuters/ Arkady Budnitsky / Anadolu Agency

The chief of the rebel Wagner mercenary force will leave Russia and won't face charges after calling off his troops' advance on Saturday, Moscow said, according to the AFP news agency.

The feud between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia's military brass came to a violent head on Friday, with his forces capturing key army headquarters in southern Russia and then heading north to threaten the capital.

However, Prigozhin made a stunning announcement on Saturday that his troops were "turning our columns around and going back to field camps" to avoid bloodshed in the Russian capital.

Prigozhin, who has feuded bitterly with Moscow's military leadership even as his outfit led parts of Russia's Ukraine offensive, said he understood the importance of the moment and did not want to "spill Russian blood".

Within hours of Prigozhin's about-face, the Kremlin announced he would leave for Belarus and Russia would not prosecute either him or the group's members.

Before Prigozhin’s announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned against civil war, and the capital of Moscow told locals to stay off the streets.

Overnight, Wagner pulled fighters and equipment from Rostov-on-Don, where they had seized the military headquarters, said the regional governor.

Authorities in the southern Lipetsk region announced the lifting of restrictions after earlier reporting Wagner fighters in their territory, where the local capital is just 420 kilometers south of Moscow.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated a truce with Prigozhin, drawing thanks from Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters that the "criminal case against him (Prigozhin) will be dropped. He himself will go to Belarus."

Peskov also said that members of Wagner who had taken part in what authorities termed an "armed rebellion" will not be prosecuted.

Before Prigozhin's climbdown, Russian regular forces had launched what one regional governor called a "counter-terrorist operation" to halt the Wagner advance northwards up a main highway towards Moscow.