The head of the Wagner mercenary group, which in June attempted to topple Russia’s military leadership, has been reported dead after a plane crashed on Wednesday.
All 10 people on board were killed, but the Kremlin is yet to confirm Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s death, despite Russian officials saying he was on the passenger list.Prigozhin‘s short-lived rebellion was seen as the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority since he came to power. Since then, uncertainty has surrounded the fate of Wagner and its controversial chief.
Wednesday’s announcement by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, that a private plane travelling between Moscow and Saint Petersburg had crashed, has raised suspicion that the Wagner head and his collaborators could have been intentionally killed.
Over the years, a number of opponents to Putin or his interests have died under unclear circumstances or come close to death, including Alexey Navalny and Sergei Skripal.
Margarita Simonyan, editor of the Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT, tweeted: “Among the versions under discussion is a staging. But personally, I’m leaning towards the more obvious.”
Russian news agency RIA Novosti on Thursday reported that the tail of the plane had been found 3.5km (2.2 miles) from the crash site.
TASS, another Russian state news outlet, reported that a team of Russian Investigative Committee investigators was dispatched to the crash site and first responders were working at the scene.
The cause of the crash has not yet been established. Video footage circulated on social media appeared to show the plane in a vertical free fall, leaving a smoke trail.
The Wagner-linked Grey Zone Telegram channel claimed the plane had been shot down by the Russian military’s air defence systems, but this information could not be verified.
A Russian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Moscow Times that they believe neither the fact of the crash nor its location were a coincidence.“Not far from the president’s residence in Valdai, there are four divisions of S-300 PMU1s [missile defence systems] guarding the sky,” the source said. “On June 24 – a march on Moscow. And on August 24 – two missiles …
“Look how it was falling – it was shot down just like that. The plane just fell out of the sky,” the source added.
Independent journalist Andrei Zakharov, citing an unnamed source, told the newspaper that Prigozhin on Wednesday was returning to Russia from a trip to Africa, where Wagner mercenaries have operated for years and where Prigozhin was recently filmed for a recruitment video.
Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak said in a Telegram post that the incident was “a completely clear message to all the elites, to anyone who had any subversive thoughts about the direction of the special military operation, and [other thoughts] in general”.
Villagers interviewed by Reuters reported hearing a loud bang before seeing the plane plummet.