By Will Stewart
LONDON - A mysterious delay hit the flight in which Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is believed to have died, according to claims on Thursday.
Russia's civil aviation agency said that Prigozhin and six top lieutenants - including deputy Dmitry Utkin Wagner -were on a business jet that crashed on Wednesday, soon after taking off from Moscow, with a crew of three.
Rescuers quickly found all 10 bodies, and Russian media cited sources in Prigozhin's Wagner private military company who confirmed his death.
US and other Western officials long expected Putin to go after Prigozhin, despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June 23-24 mutiny.
“I don't know for a fact what happened but I'm not surprised," U.S. President Joe Biden said. "There's not much that happens in Russia that Putin's not behind."
Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed and offered different theories for how.
Evidence from Flightradar suggested the business jet - linked to Prigozhin - suddenly fell from the sky at 6.19pm Moscow time after reaching a cruising altitude of 29,855ft enroute to St Petersburg.
Another account said the plane in just 22 seconds lost 8,000ft after which it ceased sending data as it plunged to the ground where it exploded in a fireball.
The speed of the aircraft lessened then sharply increased immediately before it plunged from the sky, according to separate unconfirmed reports on Telegram channels including Rybar.
Police cordoned off the field where the plane crashed as investigators studied the site. Vehicles were seen driving in to take the bodies, reportedly badly charred, for a forensic exam. The bodies were driven away after two black Russian GAZelle came to the crash site at 4.30am on Thursday.
At Wagner's headquarters in St Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross. Prigozhin's supporters brought flowers to the building in an improvised memorial.
While countless theories about the events swirled, most observers saw Prigozhin's death as Putin's punishment for the most serious challenge to his authority of his 23-year rule.
The jet is said to have crashed in the Tver region, north of Moscow. The Russian emergency services ministry said “according to preliminary information, all those on board died”.
Flight attendant Kristina Raspopova, 39, had told her relatives of an unexplained holdup before the flight. She also indicated the aircraft was being “repaired”, according to VChK-OGPU Telegram channel.
Her last picture showed her waiting at an airport cafe.
A relative of flight attendant Kristina Raspopova told the channel: “She said that she was in Moscow, she was going to fly out, today or tomorrow.
“The aircraft was under maintenance or some urgent repairs.
“They were waiting for the flight. Some kind of maintenance.”
The relative said: “She said that the flight was domestic.
“They were waiting for a call when to fly.
“Regarding the maintenance of the aircraft, she said that either it was maintenance, or it was just an aircraft repair, something like that.
“They were waiting for the order to take off…”
Meanwhile Wagner mercenary loyalists have vowed revenge on Vlidmir Putin who they blame for assassinating Prigozhin, 62, head of the private army closely backed by Russian military intelligence.
The Russian security forces tightened security in Rostov and Belgorod regions where Wagner forces remain encamped.
Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said: “Obviously, Prigozhin signed his own death warrant at the moment when he believed in [Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko’s] strange ‘guarantees’ and Putin’s equally absurd ‘word of honour’.
“The defiant removal of Prigozhin and the Wagner team two months after the coup attempt is Putin’s signal to the Russian elites ahead of the 2024 elections.”
The elites were being warned to be “careful” because “disloyalty equals death”, he said.
“But this is also a signal to the Russian military: there will be no “heroes of the [war]”.
“If not a Ukrainian tribunal, then it will be an FSB bullet.”
A source familiar with Prigozhin said that he had been “sure that Putin would forgive him everything and was not afraid of anything.
“He said that he knew a lot [about Putin].
“We will see if something from his archives appears now…”
Russian MP and pro-war fanatic Mikhail Delyagin claimed that he did not believe Prigozhin was dead.
“I strongly doubt the death of Utkin, and even Prigozhin,” he said.
“People [like this] sometimes use fictitious disasters to leave the public stage, where they are uncomfortable.”
Yet sources close to the Kremlin also did not rule out the possibility that Prigozhin may still be alive, said the publication.
“He’s a trickster, a troll. He has informants in various structures, so we have to wait,” one said.