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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Pjotr Sauer

Onboard grenade blast caused plane crash that killed Wagner boss, claims Putin

A makeshift memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group in Moscow, following his death in a plane crash.
A makeshift memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group in Moscow, following his death in a plane crash. Photograph: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

Vladimir Putin has claimed that the plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin was caused by hand grenades detonating inside the aircraft, and suggested the Wagner boss may have been on drugs.

Prigozhin died when his business jet crashed on 23 August, two months after he staged an aborted mutiny against Russian military commanders in which his Wagner mercenary troops briefly took control of the southern city of Rostov and advanced towards Moscow. Two other top Wagner commanders, Prigozhin’s four bodyguards and a crew of three were also killed.

Making his first comments on the cause of the crash, Putin claimed the plane was blown up from inside, saying that the head of Russia’s investigative committee had reported to him a few days ago.

“Fragments of hand grenades were found in the bodies of those killed in the crash,” Putin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club thinktank in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“There was no external impact on the plane – this is already an established fact,” Putin said, contradicting reports by western intelligence services that said a bomb was the likely reason behind the crash.

Putin did not elaborate on how the grenades could detonate on board but implied that alcohol and drugs could have played a role in the crash.

Investigators in front of the downed jet
Investigators at the scene of the crash. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

“Unfortunately, no examination was carried out to determine the presence of alcohol or drugs in the blood of the victims,” Putin said.

“Although we know … that the FSB discovered not only 10bn roubles in cash, but also 5kg of cocaine,” he said, referring to the stacks of cash and drugs that the security services allegedly discovered during a search of Prigozhin’s mansion after his failed rebellion.

Putin described Russia’s experience with Wagner as “clumsy”, and said that the group was not based on Russian law but was created out of “necessity”. He said there were “no private military companies in Russia” because there was no law to regulate them.

Putin further said that “several thousand soldiers” of the Wagner group signed contracts with the Russian defence ministry. He made the comments days after the Russian president met a former senior Wagner commander to discuss how to best repurpose the notorious paramilitary group after its founder’s death.

Last week, Ukrainian officials said some former Wagner fighters had returned to the battlefield but were operating as part of the regular army and had not joined as a separate unit.

Russia has systematically taken control of the Wagner group after Prigozhin’s mutiny that presented the biggest challenge to Putin’s 23 years in power.

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