Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a brief armed rebellion against the Russian military earlier this year, was aboard a plane that crashed north of Moscow on Wednesday, killing all 10 people on board, according to Russia's civil aviation agency.
The crash immediately raised suspicion; the fate of the founder of the Wagner private military company had been the subject of intense speculation since he mounted the mutiny.
At the time, President Vladimir Putin denounced the rebellion and vowed to avenge it. But the charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped. The Wagner chief, whose troops were some of the best fighting forces for Russia in Ukraine, was allowed to retreat to Belarus, while he popped up in Russia from time to time.
The crash also came after Russian media reported that a top general linked to Prigozhin had been dismissed from his position as commander of the air force.
The plane that crashed Wednesday carried three pilots and seven passengers and was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It went down almost 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of the capital, according to officials cited by Russia's state news agency Tass.
Russia's civilian aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, quickly reported that he was on the manifest and later said that, according to the airline, he was indeed on board.
Earlier, Vladimir Rogov, a Russia-appointed official in the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine, said he'd talked to Wagner commanders who also confirmed that Prigozhin was aboard, as was Dmitry Utkin, whose call sign Wagner became the company's name.
Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed a private jet that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.
The signal stopped suddenly while the plane was at altitude and traveling at speed. In an image posted by a pro-Wagner social media account showing burning wreckage, a partial tail number matching a jet previously used by Prigozhin could be seen.
Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone showed a plane dropping like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting as it fell. Such freefalls can occur when an aircraft sustains severe damage, and a frame-by-frame analysis by the AP of two videos were consistent with some sort of explosion midflight. The images appeared to show the plane was missing a wing.
Russia's Investigative Committee opened an investigation into the crash on charges of violating air safety rules, as is typical when they open such probes.
"I don't know for a fact what happened," U.S. President Joe Biden said of the crash, "but I'm not surprised."
Keir Giles, a Russia expert with the international affairs think tank Chatham House, urged caution about reports of Prigozhin's death. He said that "multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeny Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels."
"Let's not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa," Giles said.
Even if confirmed, Prigozhin's death would be unlikely to have an effect on Russia's war in Ukraine, where his forces fought some of the fiercest battles over the last 18 months.
His troops pulled back from front-line action after capturing Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region, in late May. Bakhmut had been the subject of arguably the bloodiest battles in the entire war, with the Russian forces struggling to seize it for months.
After the rebellion, Russian officials said Prigozhin's fighters would be able to return to Ukraine only as part of the regular army.
This week, Prigozhin posted his first recruitment video since the mutiny, saying that Wagner was conducting reconnaissance and search activities and "making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free."
Also this week, Russian media reported, citing anonymous sources, that General Sergei Surovikin had been dismissed from his position as commander of Russia's air force. Surovikin, who at one point led Russia's operation in Ukraine, hasn't been seen in public since the mutiny, when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin's forces to pull back.
As news of the crash was breaking, Putin spoke at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk, hailing the heroes of Russia's war in Ukraine.