An aircraft said to be carrying notorious warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner group launched a failed mutiny in June, has crashed on a flight from Moscow to St Petersburg, according to Russian officials.
All 10 people on the plane, including three crew members, died in the crash, Russia’s emergency ministry said, according to state newswire RIA Novosti. Russian officials said that a man with Prigozhin’s name was among the passengers, without elaborating further.
If confirmed, Prigozhin’s death would mark a spectacular end to the warlord’s meteoric career nearly a year and a half into president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, two months after he led his paramilitary force on a historic, abortive mutiny march on Moscow.
A post by Grey Zone, a Wagner-connected social media channel, claimed that Russian anti-aircraft defences had shot down the plane in the Tver region near the village of Kuzhenkino.
It said that residents heard “two bursts of characteristic air defence fire” before the fall of the plane, “and this is confirmed by inversion traces in the sky in one of the videos”, it said, adding that the information was preliminary.
Mash, a news outlet on social media app Telegram, said locals had heard two loud bangs before the crash.
A former Kremlin caterer known as “Putin’s chef”, Prigozhin emerged as one of the most important leaders of Russia’s war effort before souring on the military’s leadership so much that he launched a coup against them in late June.
Although Wagner’s men effectively seized control of two major cities in southern Russia, killing at least 13 soldiers as they downed two helicopters and a plane on their march to Moscow, Putin had appeared to forgive them.
Under an agreement with the Kremlin, Wagner decamped for exile in neighbouring Belarus, whose leader Alexander Lukashenko brokered the truce.
Prigozhin said last month that Wagner’s men would eventually redeploy to Africa, where the group continues to fight as mercenaries in several conflicts. He appeared in a video on Monday saying that he was in Africa on a mission to “make Russia even greater on all continents”.
Although Prigozhin appeared to have been reintegrated into the Russian security establishment, American officials had said they expected that he was likely to face retribution.
“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” William Burns, CIA director, said while speaking at the Aspen Security Forum last month. “In my experience Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”
The aircraft, an Embraer Legacy, was the same that Prigozhin had regularly used to travel around Russia and as far away as Africa, according to flight tracking site Flightradar24.
When it last broadcast its position, it was at 28,000ft and moving at a ground speed of 513 knots.
The route appears to be the aircraft’s normal flight path to St Petersburg, a run it last made on July 6.
Video of the crash and its aftermath posted by social media with ties to Russian security services showed the plane rapidly descending from the sky, accompanied by a plume resembling shots fired from anti-aircraft defences, before crashing to the ground in a ball of flame.
However, Mash also reported that security services were investigating the possibility of a “terrorist attack on board” as another potential cause of the blast.
Additional reporting by Chris Cook in London