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Pentagon says Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin likely killed in plane crash, no evidence of missile attack

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U.S. officials said they believe Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was likely killed in a plane crash Wednesday, as theories continue to swirl that the Russian government was involved in his death. 

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the U.S. would not comment on whether Prigozhin’s death was part of a deliberate assassination. 

“First of all, our initial assessment is that it’s likely Prigozhin was killed,” he said. “We don’t have any information to indicate, right now, the press reporting, stating that there was some type of surface-to-air missile that took down the plane. But, we assess that information to be inaccurate.”

Prigozhin was killed Wednesday in a plane crash that left 10 people dead outside of Moscow, state media reported. The business jet was traveling from the Russian capital to St. Petersburg when it went down in the Tver region, according to the TASS news agency.

WHO IS YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN?

Prigozhin memorial

Portraits of Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, and Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner’s operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence, are seen at the makeshift memorial in front of the PMC Wagner office in Novosibirsk. (Vladimir NIKOLAYEV/AFP via Getty Images)

The death came two months after the Wagner chief led a brief mutiny that shocked observers and posed the most severe challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority.  

Putin labeled it a “stab in the back” and “treason.” On Thursday, he spoke for the first time regarding Prigozhin’s death. 

“As for the aviation tragedy, first of all, I want to express my sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims. It is always a tragedy,” Putin said while meeting with Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian-aligned Ukrainian separatist state. “Indeed, if there were — and the primary data indicate that there were employees of the Wagner PMC — I would want to note that these people made a significant contribution to our common cause of fighting the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. We remember this, we know it, and we will not forget it.”

Many have speculated that Putin was behind the explosion of the plane carrying Prigozhin, given that political opponents, journalists and others critical of the Russian leader have died in mysterious circumstances over the years. 

WAGNER TROOPS MOURN PRIGOZHIN FOLLOWING PLANE CRASH

Mercenary soldier pays his respects to Prigozhin

A member of private mercenary group Wagner dressed in fatigues pays tribute Thursday to Yevgeny Prigozhin at the makeshift memorial in front of the PMC Wagner office in Novosibirsk, Oblast, Russia. (Vladimir Nikolayev/AFP via Getty Images)

Immediately following the incident, President Biden was asked about reports that Prigozhin was possibly on the doomed aircraft. 

“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I am not surprised… Not much happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. I don’t know enough to know the answer,” he said.

Wagner troops have mourned their leader and set up memorials where some have publicly prayed for him.

Prigozhin in military fatigues holding a weapon

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, speaks to a camera at an unknown location. Prigozhin was likely killed during a Wednesday plane crash outside Moscow, the Pentagon said.  (Razgruzka Vagnera/Telegram Channel via AP, File)

“I won’t be afraid to say that Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian hero,” a Wagner supporter told the news website Fontanka. “He’s a man of his word. He’s done a lot not only in the course of the special military operation, [but] in defending Russia’s interests in the world, the Syrian campaign [and] in Africa.” 

Prigozhin, once a close ally of Putin, was given great latitude in his criticism of Russian military leaders amid Moscow’s stalled war against Ukraine. Videos of him publicly assailing Russian military generals and officials went viral as the army encountered strong Ukrainian resistance and battlefield losses. 

Prigozhin plane crash

This image taken from video released by Ostorozhno Novosti on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, shows the crash site of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia. Officials say a private jet has crashed over Russia, killing all 10 people on board, including Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Ostorozhno Novosti via AP)

Training for Ukrainian pilots

During Thursday’s news briefing, Ryder said the United States will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly and maintain F-16 fighter aircraft beginning in October. 

The training will be held at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona and will be facilitated by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing.

The Ukrainian pilots will also undergo English language training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in September before flight training. 

Prigozhin

People carry a body bag away from the wreckage of a crashed private jet, near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia. Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, reportedly died when a private jet he was said to be on crashed Wednesday, killing all 10 people on board. (AP Photo)

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“The training provided by the United States will complement the F-16 pilot and maintenance training that’s already underway in Europe and further deepens our support for the F-16 training coalition led by Denmark and the Netherlands,” Ryder said. 

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