By Jack Phillips
Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was among passengers on a plane that crashed northwest of Moscow on Aug. 23, according to Russian state media.
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry told TASS News and RIA Novosti that all 10 people on board the private plane died in the crash in Tver Oblast and that Mr. Prigozhin was on the list of passengers on board the plane. Photos of the crash show what appears to be the wreckage of a plane on fire in a field.
Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency also told state media that Mr. Prigozhin was on board the aircraft. It was reported that the crash occurred on a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
“An investigation has been launched into the crash of the Embraer aircraft, which occurred tonight in the Tver region. According to the list of passengers, among them is the name and surname of Yevgeny Prigozhin,” the transport agency stated, according to TASS.
Officials said an investigation into the crash has begun.
A Telegram channel, Grey Zone, which some say is linked to Wagner, claimed that the plane was shot down by Russian air defense systems “from the Russian Defense Ministry in the Bologovsky district of the Tver region.”
“Before the plane crash, local residents listened to two bursts of characteristic air defense, and this is confirmed by contrails in the sky in one of the videos, as well as the words of direct eyewitnesses,” the channel stated.
The Epoch Times couldn’t immediately verify claims made by Grey Zone or by Russian state media.
In a statement to news outlets, the Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport said that “according to preliminary data, there were seven passengers and three crew members on board the aircraft, which was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg.”
Investigators at the scene “begun collecting factual materials on the training of the crew, the technical condition of the aircraft, the meteorological situation on the flight route, the work of dispatch services and ground radio equipment,” the statement said.
Hours after the mercenary chief’s reported death, several top Ukrainian officials suggested that the Russian government was behind the crash. Mr. Prigozhin “signed a special death warrant for himself” when he called off his march on Moscow, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on social media.
“The demonstrative elimination of Prigozhin and the Wagner command two months after the coup attempt is a signal from Putin to Russia’s elites ahead of the 2024 elections,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
President Joe Biden, too, was asked about Mr. Prigozhin while visiting Lake Tahoe, California, where he is on vacation. “I don’t know for a fact what happened but I’m not surprised,” the president said, adding: “I don’t know enough to know the answer. I’ve been working out for the last hour and a half.”
Revolt in June
Notably, Mr. Prigozhin initiated what some analysts said was a failed coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June before Russian officials said he would leave the country and head to Belarus.
Earlier this week, Mr. Prigozhin posted his first video clip and was seen standing in a desert area in camouflage with a rifle in his hands. People in the background of the clip were also armed.
It isn’t clear where he was, but Mr. Prigozhin’s comments and several posts in the pro-Wagner channels suggested that the clip was filmed in Africa.
“The temperature is plus 50—everything as we like. The Wagner PMC makes Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa—more free,” Mr. Prigozhin says in the video clip. “Justice and happiness—for the African people, we’re making life a nightmare for ISIS and Al Qaeda and other bandits.”
He then noted that Wagner is recruiting people and that the group “will fulfill the tasks that were set.” The video clip is accompanied by a telephone number for those who want to join the group.
The future of Wagner and Mr. Prigozhin has been unclear since the short mutiny against the Russian defense establishment. Since the mutiny, some Wagner fighters have moved to Belarus and started training the army there.
In comments published in late July, Mr. Prigozhin also said Wagner was ready to further increase its presence in Africa. He also made comments about the recent coup in Niger, during which the country’s presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum.
“What happened in Niger has been brewing for years,” he reportedly said in a Telegram audio recording last month. “The former colonizers are trying to keep the people of African countries in check. In order to keep them in check, the former colonizers are filling these countries with terrorists and various bandit formations. Thus creating a colossal security crisis.”
Russian leadership, including Mr. Putin, hasn’t commented on Mr. Prigozhin’s reported death.
Moscow has used the Wagner Group since 2014 to expand Russia’s military presence in Africa and the Middle East. Earlier this summer, Mr. Prigozhin spent weeks criticizing Russia’s performance in Ukraine and claimed that there was a lack of support amid heavy fighting.
That’s when he called for a military uprising against the Kremlin in June to oust Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and lead his forces from eastern Ukraine toward Moscow.
Then, a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko between Mr. Prigozhin and the Kremlin agreed to end the rebellion in exchange for amnesty for Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters. Wagner then reportedly handed over its weapons and equipment to the Russian military.
At the time, Mr. Putin branded Mr. Prigozhin a traitor as the revolt took place and said he would punish the group and Mr. Prigozhin harshly. Later, a criminal case against Mr. Prigozhin was dropped.
In July, a video allegedly showed the Wagner chief in Belarus. Later, he was photographed at a Russia–Africa summit in St. Petersburg.
Reuters contributed to this report.