Russian investigators said Sunday that genetic and forensic testing showed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner mercenary fighters in Ukraine, was among the 10 people killed in a plane crash last week in Russia.
Russia’s aviation agency said the testing confirmed that a previously published list of names of the people on board the flight was accurate, and that Prigozhin, his top two lieutenants, Dmitry Utkin and Wagner logistics mastermind Valery Chekalov, were among the ten victims.
There had been some questions, especially on pro-Wagner Telegram channels, about whether Prigozhin — who was known to take various security precautions in anticipation of a possible attempt on his life — had been a passenger on the doomed flight.
The private jet they were traveling on from Moscow to St. Petersburg fell from the sky and crashed into a field Wednesday in the Tyer region northwest of Moscow, with video footage showing intense flames in the wreckage.
Authorities have yet to say what caused the crash. Russia says it was “an absolute lie” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Prigozhin to be killed as punishment for Prigozhin leading the June 23-24 mutiny and short-lived march of Wagner troops out of Ukraine and toward Moscow — before calling it off.
Western politicians and analysts have suggested, without presenting evidence, that Putin, who called the mutiny a “stab in the back,” had plotted the killing of Prigozhin, 62, who led Wagner troops in Ukraine that fought alongside Russian forces.
But Prigozhin, before the mutiny, had grown openly critical of what he claimed was a lack of support for Wagner fighters from Russian military leaders and sufficient arms supplies. Wagner was funded by the Russian government.
The crash came two months to the day after the mutiny, in which Prigozhin’s troops took control of a southern Russian city, Rostov, just north of the border with Ukraine, and moved to within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow before ending the advance.
Prigozhin spent some time in Belarus after the mutiny, while also meeting with Putin at the Kremlin and traveling to his own headquarters in St. Petersburg.
After the mutiny, the Kremlin said Wagner fighters were offered three options: to follow Prigozhin there, to retire or enlist in Russia's regular army and return to Ukraine. Several thousand Wagner mercenaries opted to move to Belarus, where a camp was erected for them southeast of the capital, Minsk.
Putin paid a mixed tribute to Prigozhin on Thursday, characterizing him as a "talented businessman" but also as a flawed individual who "made serious mistakes in life."
Asked whether Putin might attend Prigozhin’s funeral, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was too early to say, noting the president's "busy schedule."
Some material in this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.