Plane crash believed to have killed Russia’s Wagner mercenary chief Prigozhin seen as Kremlin’s revenge

WASHINGTON (AP) — A preliminary U.S. intelligence evaluation has discovered that the airplane crash presumed to have killed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was deliberately attributable to an explosion, in accordance to U.S. and Western officers.

One of the officers, who weren’t licensed to remark and spoke on the situation of anonymity, stated that the explosion falls consistent with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”

The officers didn’t supply any particulars on what brought on the explosion that was believed to have killed Prigozhin and several other of his lieutenants to avenge a mutiny that challenged the Russian chief’s authority.

Details of the U.S. evaluation surfaced as Putin on Thursday expressed his condolences to the households of those that had been reported to be aboard the jet and referred to “serious mistakes” by Prigozhin. The White House declined to remark.

Part of a non-public jet by the crash web site, close to the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver area, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founding father of the Wagner Group, reportedly died when a non-public jet he was stated to be on crashed on Aug. 23, 2023, killing all 10 folks on board. (AP Photo)

The founder of the Wagner military company and six other passengers were on a private jet that crashed Wednesday soon after taking off from Moscow with a crew of three, according to Russia’s civil aviation authority. Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited anonymous sources in Wagner who said Prigozhin was dead. But there has been no official confirmation.

President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said that he believed Putin was behind the crash, though he acknowledged that he did not, at that time, have solid information verifying his belief.

“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”

If the deaths are confirmed, the crash would be the most serious blow the group has ever suffered to its leadership. The passenger manifest included Prigozhin and his second-in-command who baptized the group with his nom de guerre, as well as Wagner’s logistics chief, a fighter wounded by U.S. airstrikes in Syria and at least one possible bodyguard.

It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, including top leaders who are normally exceedingly careful about their security, were on the same flight. The purpose of their joint trip to St. Petersburg was unknown.

In all, the other passengers included six of Prigozhin’s lieutenants, along with the three-member flight crew.

At Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross, and Prigozhin supporters built a makeshift memorial, piling red and white flowers outside the building Thursday, along with company flags and candles.

In this first comments on the crash, Putin said the passengers had “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine.

“We remember this, we know, and we will not forget,” the president said in a televised interview with the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin.

Putin recalled that he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s and described him as “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results he needed — both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman.”

Russian state media have not covered the crash extensively, instead focusing on Putin’s remarks to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg via video link and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Elsewhere, police cordoned off the field where the plane went down in Kuzhenkino, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northwest of Moscow, as investigators studied its wreckage. Vehicles took away the bodies.

Several Russian social media channels reported that the bodies were burned or disfigured beyond recognition and would need to be identified by DNA. The reports were picked up by independent Russian media, but The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm them.

Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggesting it could have been hit by a missile or targeted by a bomb on board. Those claims could not be independently verified.

Sergei Mironov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party and former chairman of the upper house of the Russian parliament suggested on his Telegram channel that Prigozhin had been deliberately killed.

“Prigozhin messed with too many people in Russia, Ukraine and the West,” Mironov wrote. It now seems that at some point his number of enemies reached a critical point.”

Russian authorities have said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

Kuzhenkino resident Anastasia Bukharova, 27, said she was walking with her children Wednesday when she saw the jet, “and then — boom! — it exploded in the sky and began to fall down.” She said she was scared it would hit houses in the village and ran with the children, but it ended up crashing into a field.

“Something sort of was torn from it in the air, and it began to go down and down,” she added.

Numerous opponents and critics of Putin have been killed or gravely sickened in apparent assassination attempts, and U.S. and other Western officials long expected the Russian leader to go after Prigozhin, despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June 23-24 mutiny.

“It is no coincidence that the whole world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced ex-confidant of Putin suddenly falls from the sky, two months after he attempted an uprising,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, while acknowledging that the facts were still unclear.

“We know this pattern … in Putin’s Russia — deaths and dubious suicides, falls from windows that all ultimately remain unexplained,” she added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also pointed the finger. “We have nothing to do with this. Everyone understands who does,” he said.

According to the civil aviation authority, the flight manifest included Dmitry Utkin, who was long believed to be the founder of Wagner. Utkin’s call sign was Wagner, which became the company’s name. He was a retired special forces officer and a member of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service and was responsible for Wagner command and combat training, according to investigations by the Dossier Center and Bellingcat.

Other prime associates listed on the manifest included Valery Chekalov, who was Wagner’s logistics mastermind, accountable for managing mercenaries and securing weapons, and Yevgeny Makaryan, who was wounded whereas preventing with Wagner in Syria.

The crash additionally got here the identical week that Russian media reported that Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former prime commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin, was dismissed from his submit as commander of Russia’s air pressure.

Russian servicemen guard a road towards a private jet crash, near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, early Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Officials say a private jet has crashed over Russia, killing all 10 people on board. Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was on the passenger list, and Russia’s civil aviation agency says he was on board. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian servicemen guard a highway in direction of a non-public jet crash, close to the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver area, Russia, early Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Prigozhin was lengthy outspoken and important of how Russian generals had been waging the warfare in Ukraine, the place his mercenaries had been among the fiercest fighters for the Kremlin. For a very long time, Putin appeared content material to enable such infighting — and Prigozhin appeared to have uncommon latitude to communicate his thoughts.

But Prigozhin’s temporary revolt raised the ante. His mercenaries swept by the southern Russian metropolis of Rostov-on-Don and captured the navy headquarters there with out firing a shot. They then drove to inside about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow and downed a number of navy plane, killing greater than a dozen Russian pilots.

Putin first denounced the riot — essentially the most critical problem to his 23-year rule — as “treason” and a “stab in the back.” He vowed to punish its perpetrators, and the world waited for his subsequent transfer, notably since Prigozhin had publicly questioned the Russian chief’s justifications for the warfare in Ukraine, seen as a pink line.

But as an alternative Putin made a deal that noticed an finish to the mutiny in change for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and permission for them to transfer to Belarus.

Now many are suggesting the punishment has lastly come.

“The downing of the plane was certainly no mere coincidence,” Janis Sarts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, instructed Latvian tv.

Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s dying is unlikely to have an impact on Russia’s warfare in Ukraine. His forces fought among the bloodiest battles over the past 18 months, however pulled again from the entrance line after capturing the jap metropolis of Bakhmut in late May. After the riot, Russian officers stated his fighters would solely find a way to return to Ukraine as a part of the common military.

The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian authorities seemingly moved towards Prigozhin and his prime associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization.”

Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for President Putin turned political marketing consultant, stated Putin had to step in as a result of, by finishing up the mutiny and remaining free, Prigozhin “shoved Putin’s face into the dirt front of the whole world.”

Failing to punish Prigozhin would have provided an “open invitation for all potential rebels and troublemakers,” so Putin had to act, Gallyamov stated.

Flight-tracking knowledge reviewed by The Associated Press confirmed {that a} non-public jet beforehand utilized by Prigozhin took off from Moscow on Wednesday night, and its transponder sign disappeared minutes later.

Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone confirmed a airplane dropping like a stone from a big cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it fell, one in all its wings apparently lacking. A free fall like that sometimes happens when an plane sustains extreme harm, and a frame-by-frame AP evaluation of two movies was per some type of explosion mid-flight.


Burrows reported from London.

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