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Investigators trawl site of plane crash believed to have killed Wagner boss Prigozhin

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MOSCOW: Crash investigators on Thursday (Aug 24) picked through the wreckage of a jet said to have been carrying Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin that crashed with no survivors, two months after he led a mutiny against the army leadership.

Investigators opened a criminal probe but there was no official word on what may have caused Wednesday evening’s crash, or even official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death beyond a statement from the aviation authority saying that he was on board.

The Kremlin and the defence ministry also made no comment on the fate of Prigozhin, 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.

President Vladimir Putin 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.

State media gave the disaster low-key coverage.

The Embraer Legacy 600 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.

Residents of Kuzhenkino said they had heard a bang and then saw the jet plummet to the ground.

One villager, who gave his name as Anatoly, said: “In terms of what might have happened, I’ll just say this: It wasn’t thunder, it was a metallic bang – let’s put it that way.”

Unnamed sources told Russian media that they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles. Reuters could not confirm that.

Mourners left flowers and lit candles near Wagner’s offices in St Petersburg.

A Telegram channel linked to Wagner, Grey Zone, pronounced Prigozhin dead on Wednesday evening, hailing him as a hero and a patriot who it said had died at the hands of unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia”.

Amid the absence of verified facts, some of his supporters have pointed the finger of blame at the Russian state, others at Ukraine, which was due to mark its Independence Day on Thursday.

Whoever or whatever was behind the crash, his death would rid Putin of someone who had mounted the most serious challenge to his authority since he came to power in 1999.

Prigozhin’s death would also leave Wagner, which incurred Putin’s wrath in June by staging a failed mutiny against the army’s top brass, leaderless and raise questions about its future operations in Africa and elsewhere.

The plane showed no sign of a problem until a precipitous drop in its final 30 seconds, according to flight-tracking data.

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