MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Wednesday that investigators are examining the possibility that the plane carrying mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhine was deliberately shot down, the first explicit admission that he might have been assassinated.
“Obviously different versions are being considered, including the one – you know what we are talking about – let’s say, deliberate atrocities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked about the investigation.
Asked whether the International Civil Aviation Organization would investigate the accident, Peskov said the circumstances made it different, but warned that investigators had not yet reached official conclusions about what exactly happened.
Peskov said: “Let’s wait for the results of our Russian investigation.”
The private Embraer plane on which Prigozhin was traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg crashed north of Moscow, killing all ten people on board on August 23, including two other Wagner dignitaries, Prigozhin’s four bodyguards and a crew. Of three individuals.
The cause remains unclear, but villagers near the scene told Reuters they heard a bang and then saw the plane descend to the ground.
The plane crashed exactly two months after Prigozhin took control of the southern city of Rostov in late June, at the start of the rebellion that shook the foundations of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has told Brazil’s Aircraft Investigation Authority that it will not investigate the crash of the Brazilian-made Embraer under international rules “for now,” the Brazilian agency told Reuters.
In response to a question about this report, Peskov said: “First of all, the investigation is underway, and the Investigative Committee is engaged in this matter.”
Peskov said: “In this case, we can not talk about any international side.”
The day after the accident, Putin sent his condolences to the families of those killed, and said he had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the chaotic years of the early 1990s.
“He was a man with a difficult fate, who made serious mistakes in life,” Putin said, describing him as a talented businessman.
The Kremlin rejected claims by some Western politicians and commentators that Putin ordered Prigozhin’s killing in retaliation, calling them an “absolute lie.”
US President Joe Biden said he was not surprised by the death and that not much happened in Russia that Putin was not behind.
After Prigozhin’s death, Putin ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of loyalty to the Russian state, a move that Prigozhin opposed because of his anger at the Defense Ministry, which he said risked losing the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s followers placed flowers, letters and poems on his grave on Wednesday, praising him and describing him as a brave warrior.
In his life, Prigogine liked to brag that he was one of the most feared mercenaries in the world and had the best fighting power.
Opponents, such as the United States, portray Prigozhin as a brutal leader who plundered African countries and carried out sledgehammer murders on those who crossed him.
Despite winning the bloodiest battle yet in the Ukraine war for Putin by seizing Bakhmut, Prigogine has been angered by what he described as the dastardly failures of Putin’s army – and warned that Russia could lose the entire Ukraine war.
(Writing by Jay Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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