MOSCOW (AP) — Russian authorities on Sunday confirmed the death of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, putting to rest any doubts about whether the wily mercenary leader turned mutineer was on a plane that crashed Wednesday, killing everyone on board.
Genetic testing on the 10 bodies recovered at the crash site “conform to the manifest ” for the flight, Russian Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said in a statement. Russia’s civil aviation authority had said Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants were on the list of seven passengers and three crew members.
The Investigative Committee did not indicate what might have caused the business jet to plummet from the sky halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Prigozhin's hometown.
But the crash's timing raised suspicions of a possible Kremlin-orchestrated hit, while Prigozhin’s chameleon-like background allowed for speculation that he wasn't on the plane or had somehow escaped death.
Two months ago, Prigozhin, 62, mounted a daylong mutiny against Russia's military, leading his mercenaries from Ukraine toward Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried the act as “treason” and vowed punishment for those involved.
Instead, the Kremlin quickly cut a deal with Prigozhin to end the armed revolt, saying he would be allowed to walk free without facing any charges and to resettle in Belarus. Questions remained about whether the former ally of Russia's leader would face a comeuppance for the brief uprising that posed the biggest challenge to Putin's authority of his 23-year rule.
A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that an intentional explosion caused the plane to go down. As suspicions grew that the Russian president was the architect of an assassination, the Kremlin rejected them as a “complete lie.”
One of the Western officials who described the initial assessment said it determined that Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted and that an explosion would be in line with Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
Prigozhin's second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin, as well as Wagner logistics mastermind Valery Chekalov, also were killed in the crash. Utkin was long believed to have founded Wagner and baptized the group with his nom de guerre.
The fate of Wagner, which until recently played a prominent role in Russia's military campaign in Ukraine and was involved in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries, is uncertain.
After the mutiny, the Kremlin said Prigozhin would be exiled in Belarus, and his fighters were offered three options: to follow him there, retire or enlist in Russia's regular army and return to Ukraine, where Wagner mercenaries had fought alongside Russian troops.
Several thousand Wagner mercenaries opted to move to Belarus, where a camp was erected for them southeast of the capital, Minsk.