Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to the family of Yevgeny Prigozhin on Thursday, breaking his silence after the mercenary leader’s plane crashed with no survivors two months after he led a mutiny against army chiefs.
Two U.S. officials told Reuters that Washington believed a surface-to-air missile originating from inside Russia likely shot down the plane, though they said the information was preliminary and under review. They spoke on condition of anonymity and offered no evidence.
Russian investigators opened a criminal probe but there has been no official word from Moscow on what may have caused Wednesday evening’s crash. Until Putin’s comments there had been no official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death beyond a statement from the aviation authority saying he was on board.
Breaking his silence, Putin described Prigozhin as a talented businessman whom he had known since the 1990s and said the investigation into the crash would take time.
Prigozhin, 62, was head of the Wagner mercenary group and a self-declared enemy of the army top brass over what he said was its incompetent prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Putin earlier made a virtual statement to a summit of the BRICS nations in South Africa which his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was attending. Neither referenced the plane crash in which 10 people were said to have been killed.
The Embraer Legacy 600 (EMBR3.SA) executive jet, which had been flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg and was reported to have also been carrying senior members of Prigozhin’s team, crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region north of Moscow.
A Reuters reporter at the crash site on Thursday morning saw men carrying away black body bags on stretchers. Part of the plane’s tail and other fragments lay on the ground near a wooded area where forensic investigators had erected a tent.
The Baza news outlet, which has good sources among law enforcement agencies, reported that investigators were focusing on a theory that one or two bombs may have been planted on board.
Prigozhin spearheaded the mutiny against the army leadership on June 23-24 which Putin said could have tipped Russia into civil war.
The mercenary leader also spent months criticising the conduct of Russia’s war in Ukraine – which Moscow calls a “special military operation” – and had tried to topple Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff.
The mutiny was ended by an apparent Kremlin deal which saw Prigozhin agree to relocate to neighbouring Belarus. But he had appeared to move freely inside Russia.
Prigozhin posted a video address on Monday which he suggested was made in Africa. He turned up at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July. (Reuters)