MOSCOW: A private jet crashed in Russia on Wednesday, killing all 10 people aboard, emergency officials said. Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was on the passenger list, but it wasn't immediately clear if he was on board.
Prigozhin’s fate has been the subject of intense speculation ever since he mounted a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in late June. The Kremlin said the founder of the Wagner private military company, which fought alongside Russia’s regular army in Ukraine, would be exiled to Belarus.
But the mercenary chief has since reportedly popped up in Russia, leading to further questions about his future.
A plane carrying three pilots and seven passengers that was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg went down more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital, according to officials cited by Russia’s state news agency Tass. It was not clear if Prigozhin was among those on board, though Russia’s civilian aviation regulator, Rosaviatsia, said he was on the manifest.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing emergency officials, that eight bodies were found at the site of the crash.
Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed a private jet registered to Wagner that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.
The signal was lost in a rural region with no nearby airfields where the jet could have landed safely.
In an image posted by a pro-Wagner social media account showing burning wreckage, a partial tail number matching a private jet belonging to the company could be seen. The color and placement of the number on the engine of the crashed plane matches prior photos of the Wagner jet examined by The AP.
This week, Prigozhin posted his first recruitment video since the mutiny , saying that Wagner is conducting reconnaissance and search activities, and "making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free."
Also this week, Russian media reported, citing anonymous sources, that a top Russian general linked to Prigozhin — Gen. Sergei Surovikin — was dismissed from his position of the commander of Russia's air force. 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 the news about the crash was breaking, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk, hailing the heroes of Russia's "the special military operation" in Ukraine.