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Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin aboard crashed plane, says Russia

FILE - Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown prior to a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin July 2017
FILE - Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown prior to a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin July 2017 Copyright Sergei Ilnitsky/AP
Copyright Sergei Ilnitsky/AP
By Euronews with AP
Published on Updated
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far remained silent about his death.

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Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was presumed dead on Wednesday after a plane crash north of Moscow, which left no survivors.  

The notorious mercenary leader led an abortive mutiny against the Russian military earlier this year, with speculation and suspicion currently rife over what has happened. 

Neither the Kremlin nor Russian Ministry of Defence has commented on Prigozhin's death. 

Authorities say all 10 people on board the plane - including seven passengers and three crew members - were killed. Prigozhin's right-hand man and Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin is believed to be among those who died. 

The private jet crashed en route from Moscow to St Petersburg, some 100 kilometres north of the Russian capital.

Flight tracking data shows the plane taking off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and its transponder signal disappearing minutes later. It crashed in a rural region with no nearby airfields where the jet could have landed safely.

All ten bodies have been recovered said Russia's emergency services on Thursday morning. 

The crash immediately raises suspicions. Since leading an armed mutiny in Russia on 24 June, which saw Wagner mercenaries march on Moscow, Prigozhin has kept a low profile.  

At the time, President Vladimir Putin denounced the rebellion as “treason” and a “stab in the back”, vowing to avenge it. These charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped in a secretive deal that exiled the mercenary force to Belarus.

But the mercenary chief, whose troops were some of the best fighting forces for Russia in Ukraine, has since reportedly popped up in Russia.

The crash also comes after Russian media reported a top general linked to Prigozhin was dismissed from his position as commander of the air force.

AP/Ostorozhno Novosti
This image released by Ostorozhno Novosti on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, shows the crash site of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver RegionAP/Ostorozhno Novosti

Prigozhin - who is admired by many in Russia - created a storm within Russian politics. 

He repeatedly attacked the Russian military establishment over their campaign against Kyiv, while defying the Kremlin narrative about the fighting and calling on it to stop.

Keir Giles, a Russia expert with the international affairs think-tank Chatham House, urged caution about reports of Prigozhin’s death. 

“Multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels," he said. 

“Let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa.” 

Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed a private jet that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.

The signal stopped suddenly while the plane was at altitude and travelling at speed. In an image posted by a pro-Wagner social media account showing burning wreckage, a partial tail number matching a jet previously used by Prigozhin could be seen.

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AP/Ostorozhno Novosti
This image taken from video released by Ostorozhno Novosti on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, shows plane wreckage falling near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver Region.AP/Ostorozhno Novosti

Russia’s Investigative Committee opened an investigation into the crash on charges of violating air safety rules, as is typical when they open such probes.

Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an effect on Russia's war in Ukraine, where his forces fought some of the fiercest battles over the last 18 months.

His troops pulled back from front-line action after capturing Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region, in late May. Bakhmut had been the subject of arguably the bloodiest battles in the entire war, with the Russian forces struggling to seize it for months.

After the rebellion, Russian officials said his fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.

This week, Prigozhin posted his first recruitment video since the mutiny, saying Wagner is conducting reconnaissance and search activities, and “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free.”

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Russian media have also reported over the last seven days that Gen. Sergei Surovikin was dismissed from his position as the commander of Russia's air force, citing anonymous sources.

Surovikin, who at one point led Russia's operation in Ukraine, hasn't been seen in public since the mutiny when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin's forces to pull back.

As news of the crash was breaking, Putin spoke at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk, hailing the heroes of Russia's war in Ukraine.

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