Preliminary US intelligence assessments have found that the plane crash that killed Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was intentionally caused by an explosion, according to US and Western officials.

One of the officials, who was not authorized to comment and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the explosion was in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics”.

Officials gave no details about what caused the explosion, which is believed to have killed Prigozhin and several of his lieutenants in retaliation for the mutiny challenging the authority of the Russian leader.

Details of the US assessment emerged as Putin on Thursday expressed his condolences to the families of those reported to have been on board the plane and noted “serious mistakes”.

This is a breaking news update. Below is the AP’s previous story.

russian mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants were presumed dead in a plane crash On Thursday it was widely seen as a revenge killing for the insurgency challenging President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, Putin broke his silence on the crash, offering condolences to the families of those on board and referring to the “serious mistakes” made by the plane. Prigozhin,

Founder of Wagner Military Company And six other passengers They were aboard a private jet that crashed shortly after takeoff from Moscow on Wednesday with a crew of three, according to Russia’s civil aviation authority. Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited unnamed sources in Wagner who said Prigozhin was dead. But there is no official confirmation.

If the deaths are confirmed, the accident would be the most serious blow to the group’s leadership so far. The passenger manifesto included Prigozhin and his second-in-command who baptized the group with his eponym de guerre, as well as Wagner’s logistics chief, a fighter wounded by US airstrikes in Syria, and at least one possible bodyguard. .

It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, including the top leader, who is usually extremely careful about his security, were on the same flight. The purpose of their joint trip to St. Petersburg was unknown.

In total, the other passengers included six of Prigozhin’s lieutenants along with a three-man flight crew.

At Wagner’s headquarters in St Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross, and Prigozhin supporters on Thursday set a makeshift memorial outside the building with company flags and candles, heaping red and white flowers.

In first comments on the crash, Putin said the passengers had “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine.

“We remember this, we know this, and we will not forget,” the president said in a televised interview with Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region.

Putin recalled that he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s and described him as “a man with a difficult fate” who “made serious mistakes in life, and achieved the results he needed – both for himself and , when I asked him about it , for the simple reason that it happened these past months. He was a genius, a genius businessman.

Russian state media did not cover the crash widely, focusing instead on Putin’s comments. brics summit Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in Johannesburg via video link.

Elsewhere, police cordoned off the area where the plane crashed in Kuzenkino, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) northwest of Moscow, as investigators studied its wreckage. The vehicles took away the dead bodies.

Several Russian social media channels reported that the bodies had been burned or mutilated beyond recognition and would need to be identified by DNA. The reports were picked up by independent Russian media, but The Associated Press was not able to independently verify them.

Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggestions that it could have been hit by a missile or targeted by an onboard bomb. Those claims could not be independently verified.

Sergei Mironov, leader of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party and former speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house, suggested on his Telegram channel that Prigozhin was killed intentionally.

Mironov wrote, “Prygozhin messed with a lot of people in Russia, Ukraine, and the West.” Now it seems that at some point the number of his enemies reached a critical point.”

Russian officials have said that the cause of the crash is being investigated.

Anastasia Bukharova, a 27-year-old resident of Kuzenkino, said she was walking with her children on Wednesday when she saw the jet, “and then – boom!” – It burst into the sky and started falling down. She said she was scared it would hit houses in the village and ran with the children, but it crashed in a field.

“Some of it exploded in the air and it started going down and down,” he said.

Many opponents and critics of Putin have been killed or seriously ill in the apparent assassination attempt, and US and other Western officials have long hoped that the June 23–24 accord that ended the uprising Despite promising to drop the charges, the Russian leader would go after Prigozhin.

“It is no coincidence that the whole world immediately looks to the Kremlin when a disgraced former confidant of Putin suddenly falls from the sky two months after an attempted coup,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Bierbock, acknowledging that the facts were correct. Were. Still unclear.

He said, “We know the pattern…in Putin’s Russia – deaths and suspected suicides, falls from windows that ultimately go unexplained.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also raised his finger. “It has nothing to do with us. Everyone understands who does what,” he said.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, the flight manifest included Dmitry Utkin, long believed to be the founder of Wagner. Utkin’s call sign was Wagoner, which became the company’s name. According to the Dossier Center investigation, he was a retired special forces officer and member of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service and was responsible for Wagner Command and combat training. bellingcat,

Other top aides listed in the manifesto include Valery Chkalov, who was Wagner’s logistics mastermind, in charge of managing mercenaries and securing weapons, and Yevgeny Makaryan, who was wounded while fighting alongside Wagner in Syria. Were.

The crash also happened the same week that Russian media reported that General Sergei Surovikin, Ukraine’s former top commander who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin, had died. dismissed from his position As Commander of the Air Force of Russia.

Prigozhin has long been outspoken and critical of how the Russian general is waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries are some of the Kremlin’s fiercest fighters. For a long time, Putin seemed content to allow such infighting – and Prigozhin had an unusual ability to speak his mind.

But Prigozhin’s brief rebuff dampened spirits. his mercenaries Entering the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, they captured the military headquarters there without firing a single shot. They then moved about 200 kilometers (125 mi) inside Moscow and shot down several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots.

Putin was the first to condemn the rebellion – the most serious challenge to his 23-year rule – as “treason” and a “stab in the back”. He vowed to punish its perpetrators, and the world waited for his next move, especially since Prigozhin publicly questioned the Russian leader’s justification for the war in Ukraine, which has been seen as a red line. is seen in

But instead Putin struck a deal that ended the rebellion in exchange for amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and permission to move to Belarus.

Now many are suggesting that the punishment has finally come.

“The downing of the plane was certainly not just a coincidence,” Jānis Sarts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, told Latvian television.

Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an impact on Russia’s war in Ukraine. His forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in the past 18 months, but retreated from the front line after capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut in late May. After the uprising, Russian officials said that its fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.

The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian officials probably moved against Prigozhin and his top aides as “a final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization”.

Abbas Galyamov, former speechwriter-turned-political advisor to President Putin, said that Putin had to intervene because, by carrying out the rebellion and remaining free, Prigozhin “smeared Putin’s face in front of the whole world.”

Failing to punish Prigozhin, Galyamov said, would be an “open invitation to all potential rebels and troublemakers”, so Putin had to act.

Flight-tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed that a private jet previously used by Prigozhin took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening, and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.

Video shared by pro-Wagner Telegram channel Gray Zone shows a plane plummeting like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it falls, one of its wings apparently missing. This type of free fall typically occurs when an aircraft sustains serious damage, and frame-by-frame AP analysis of the two videos was consistent with an explosion of some sort in mid-flight.

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