Wagner boss presumed dead in Russia plane crashThu, 24 Aug 2023 14:24:33 GMT

A day after a plane crash that presumably killed Russia’s infamous mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and all other nine people on board, Russian President Vladimir was still silent on the incident on Thursday. The crash on Wednesday evening took place exactly two months after Prigozhin led a rebellion against Moscow’s top military brass, in the biggest threat to Putin’s long rule. Moscow opened a probe into violations of air traffic rules but investigators have been mute since, and speculation of a possible assassination is rife. Ukraine denied involvement, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying: “We have nothing to do with this situation, that’s for sure.” “I think everyone knows who this concerns,” Zelensky said, in an apparent reference to Putin. Moscow had still not officially confirmed the death of the 62-year-old warlord, saying only that he was listed as a passenger on the flight.  During the Wagner rebellion on June 23-24, Putin gave an address to Russians in which he called Prigozhin — once his ally — a “traitor”, and warned against “civil war”. Prigozhin had spent months launching scathing attacks on the way Moscow led its Ukraine offensive before his 48-hour mutiny shook Putin’s rule. Many were surprised when Moscow then dropped charges against Prigozhin and allowed him to go into exile in Belarus. – ‘Literally falls from the sky’ -Some Western leaders questioned if the crash was an accident. US President Joe Biden said he did not know what happened but added: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.” France saw “reasonable doubts” about the crash and Germany said it followed a pattern of “unclarified” fatalities in Russia. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock appeared to say it was suspicious that “a disgraced former confidant of Putin suddenly, literally falls from the sky two months after he attempted a mutiny”. Even influential pro-Kremlin figures, such as state television personality and Putin ally Margarita Simonyan, seemed to suggest that it could have been an assassination.  “Among the versions that are being discussed (about the crash) is that it was staged. But personally, I’m leaning towards the more obvious one,” she said on social media. During his long year rule, opponents of Putin have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Russia’s aviation authority published the names of the people on board the Embraer private jet late on Wednesday. It included Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner’s operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence. Russian police patrolled the crash site near the village of Kuzhenkino, some 350 kilometres (220 miles) north of Moscow in the Tver region. Some masked men carried rifles.A woman living near Kuzhenkino said her neighbour heard a roar and saw “sparkling from the plane”, accompanied by fire.”A neighbour ran up to me with shaking hands and when we went to the window I saw only one mushroom (a cloud from the explosion), a black cloud,” she said in video published by state-run agency RIA Novosti.- ‘Real patriot’ -Video verified by AFP from the scene appeared to show the Embraer Legacy plane engulfed in a plume-like column of white smoke as it fell from the sky.The Flightradar24 tracker website said the plane flying from Moscow to Saint Peterburg appeared on their radar until the last 30 seconds and descended “dramatically” at around 15:20 GMT.Some Wagner-linked Telegram channels had initially suggested that the plane was shot down by Russian air defence, on a day when Kyiv struck Russia with more drone attacks. While he publicly challenged Moscow’s authority, Prigozhin appeared to enjoy some popularity in Russia. He appealed to nationalist-leaning Russians — also suspicious of the army leadership during the Ukraine offensive — who embraced his tough-guy speak. Some even speculated that he would take part in the 2024 presidential election, which is expected to extend Putin’s rule until at least 2030. “He was one of the few real patriots in our country,” Pavel Zakharov said as he laid flowers at Wagner’s headquarters in Saint Petersburg. Many Russians eagerly awaited Prigozhin’s outspoken social media videos, often full of swear words and a sharp contrast to the tightly controlled narrative of Russian officials. “Everyone was always waiting (for) what Uncle Zhenia would say,” Igor, who also paid his respects to the crash victims, told AFP, referring to Prigozhin by the diminutive of his first name. – Ukrainians hope death ‘true’ -But some feared that Prigozhin’s death would raise tensions within Russian society. “I hope it will not become for our society some kind of red rag to a bull,” Natalia, a woman who came to the Wagner Saint Petersburg HQ said. Wagner offices were still operating and even recruiting in Russia after Prigozhin’s rebellion, which saw his men take over a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and march on Moscow.In Siberia, a region from where Wagner recruited heavily, people also laid flowers at the mercenary company’s office in Novosibirsk.But in Ukraine, where Wagner fighters were known for their exceptional brutality — including extrajudicial killings of their own men — many welcomed the news of Prigozhin’s likely end.The warlord had recruited tens of thousands of Russian convicts to fight in Ukraine, often thrown at the forefront of battles.”I feel really happy that this person died, if it is true,” government worker Iryna Kuchina told AFP in central Kyiv. “Let’s hope that it is.” Wagner’s future without Prigozhin — including its involvement in African conflicts — remained unclear. The shady businessman’s fate had been under question for two months, since the unusual deal with Minsk in which the Kremlin “guaranteed” he would be allowed to live in Belarus.  Minsk has for weeks played up the presence of the Russian fighters on its territory, saying it had set up camps for them. It is not yet clear what will happen to the Belarus-based fighters.