Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that the plane crash which killed the head of the Wagner mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was caused by the detonation of hand grenades inside the aircraft.
Putin suggested on Thursday that Prigozhin’s plane was blown up from the inside, not hit by a missile as rumoured, saying that the head of Russia’s investigative committee had reported that traces of explosives were discovered in the bodies of those who died in the crash in August.
Putin’s claims appear to rubbish claims by United States officials who believed the plane was shot down.
The private Embraer jet on which Prigozhin was travelling to Saint Petersburg crashed north of Moscow killing all 10 people on board on August 23. Two other top Wagner figures, Prigozhin’s four bodyguards and a crew of three were also killed.
Putin did not give any more details about how a grenade or grenades could have been detonated on board the executive jet, but said he thought investigators were wrong not to have carried out alcohol and drug tests on the bodies of those who died in the crash.
The investigators of the crash have yet to report publicly on their findings. Moscow rejected an offer from Brazil, where the Embraer business jet was built, to join the crash inquiry.
The Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank monitoring the conflict in Ukraine, described Putin’s explanation for the crash as “bizarre” and intended to “deflect blame from the Kremlin”.
The ISW said that Putin appeared to be sketching a scenario involving alcohol, drugs and the mishandling of explosives by people on board the plane in an attempt to blame the victims for their deaths.
Prigozhin died in the crash exactly two months to the day after leading a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s defence establishment and presented the biggest challenge to Putin’s rule since he came to power in 1999.
A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded that an intentional explosion caused the crash, and Western officials have pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated.
Before his death, Prigozhin had accused Russia’s military leaders,  particularly Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence and warned that Russia could lose the war in Ukraine unless it raised its game.
The Wagner Group mercenary force that Prigozhin created was active in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and several African countries and counted tens of thousands of fighters at its peak.

Photo: The Independent

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