Residents of the village of Kuzhenkino, in western Russia, recorded footage Wednesday as Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane jerked in a near-vertical fall before hitting the ground. The fuselage left behind a trail of smoke. The aircraft had taken off from Moscow for St. Petersburg with 10 people on board, including Prigozhin. At 18:19 local times, something happened to the aircraft. For 32 seconds it violently ascended and descended as if taking evasive maneuvers. Then it disappeared from the radars.
“I want to express my sincere condolences to the families of all the victims, this is always a tragedy,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Prigozhin’s entourage has blamed for the death of their leader, said Thursday. “I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 1990s,” added Putin, who described him as a “talented businessman.”
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it — for a common cause, as in these last months,” the Russian president added. The air crash occurred two months after Prigozhin led a brief Wagner mutiny against the Kremlin, directing columns of armored vehicles toward Moscow before calling a halt to the uprising, in what was the biggest threat Putin has faced in his more than two decades in power.
It is not yet clear what killed Prigozhin and the Wagner leadership on board, as well as the two pilots and a stewardess, but both U.S. intelligence services and some Russian media have pointed to an attack on the plane. In its preliminary analysis, Washington has cited the possibility of a bomb on board, or some other form of sabotage. According to the Pentagon, the plane crashed as the likely result of a plot to assassinate Prigozhin, but does not appear to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile, as social media channels close to Wagner had claimed.
U.S. President Joe Biden stated Wednesday that he was unaware of what had happened, but that neither was he surprised. “There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind,” he said.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported Thursday that air crash experts said the cause of the incident “could be an explosion in the tail section of the plane, which detached from the aircraft.” Residents in the area told Russian media that they heard two explosions before witnessing the aircraft hit the ground. On impact, the fuel tanks became a fireball.
“An attack or an explosion on board triggered the disaster,” added analysts consulted by Kommersant. “The proof is the destruction of the commercial airliner in midair. Its tail section was found far from the crash site and numerous holes are visible in the wreckage, including the wing,” they added.
The Kremlin has rejected any external analysis. “We’ve immediately launched an investigation, a case was opened, investigators are working. I would suggest to focus on the facts, not on what the Western media say,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, as reported by the Tass news agency.
Putin: “There is no doubt here”
“There is no doubt here. Let’s see what the investigators say in the near future. And now examinations — technical examinations and genetic ones — are being carried out. This will take some time,” said Putin.
The Flightradar24 website, which specializes in commercial aviation, published its data of the last moments of the Embraer Legacy 600 in which Prigozhin was traveling, according to Putin himself. The remains of all the victims were so charred that the morgue in the town of Tver, where they were transferred on Thursday, sent biological samples of the bodies to Moscow for genetic analysis.
The plane took off from an airfield northwest of the Russian capital at 17:59 local time. Eleven minutes later, it reached an altitude of 8,500 meters and continued in level flight until 18:19. Then something caused the aircraft to plummet toward the ground for the flight’s final 32 seconds on record.
It took more than 24 hours for the head of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to comment on the incident: “He did not see or did not want to see the full picture of what is happening in the country. I asked him to put aside personal ambitions for matters of utmost national importance. Everything else could be decided later, but he was like that,” the Chechen leader said.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who was close to Prigozhin, has not made any statements. Lukashenko, who acted as a mediator between Putin and Prigozhin during the June 23-24 mutiny, personally guaranteed the safety of Wagner’s owner in exchange for putting an end to his rebellion.
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