Russian authorities confirmed the death of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, putting to rest any doubts about whether the wily mercenary leader turned mutineer was on a plane that crashed killing everyone on board.
Genetic testing on the 10 bodies recovered at the crash site “conform to the manifest ” for the flight, Russian Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said in a statement on Sunday.
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Russia’s civil aviation authority had said Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants were on the list of seven passengers and three crew members.
The Investigative Committee did not indicate what might have caused the business jet to plummet from the sky halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg, Prigozhin’s hometown.
But the crash’s timing raised suspicions of a possible Kremlin-orchestrated hit – something Russia has vehemently denied.
Peter Eltsov, associate professor at the US National Defense University, said conspiracy theories about Prigozhin still being alive say a lot about how big a figure the Wagner Group chief was in Russia.
“He is becoming this iconic hero for a lot of his followers,” Eltsov told Al Jazeera.
Two months ago, Prigozhin, 62, mounted a daylong mutiny against Russia’s military, leading his mercenaries from Ukraine toward Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried the act as “treason” and vowed punishment for those involved.
Instead, the Kremlin quickly cut a deal with Prigozhin to end the revolt, saying he would be allowed to walk free without facing any charges and to resettle in Belarus.
Questions remained about whether the former ally of Russia’s leader would face a comeuppance for the brief uprising that posed the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority during his 23-year rule.
Prigozhin’s second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin, as well as Wagner logistics mastermind Valery Chekalov, also were killed in the crash. Utkin was long believed to have founded Wagner and baptised the group with his nom de guerre.
Prigozhin was locked in a bitter months-long power struggle with the defence ministry as his forces spearheaded costly battles for limited gains in eastern Ukraine.
He earlier accused the Russian military of trying to “steal” victories from Wagner and slammed Moscow’s “monstrous bureaucracy” for grinding progress on the ground.
And he directly blamed Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior officials for his fighters’ deaths, claiming Moscow had not provided sufficient ammunition.
Unlike Russia’s generals, who have been criticised for shirking the battles in Ukraine, the stocky and bald Prigozhin regularly posed for pictures alongside mercenaries allegedly on the front lines.
He posted on social media images from the cockpit of an Su-24 fighter jet and challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to an aerial duel.
Wagner soldiers played a prominent role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, especially in the months-long siege of the city of Bakhmut, despite Prigozhin’s frequent, profanity-laced attacks on Russia’s military high command over their conduct of the war that culminated in the failed mutiny.
After the mutiny, his fighters were offered three options: to follow him to Belarus, 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.
Some are expected to be absorbed into Russia’s armed forces, but many will be angry over the sudden demise of the group’s founder who inspired a high degree of loyalty among his men.
Putin paid a mixed tribute to Prigozhin on Thursday, describing him as a “talented businessman” but also as a flawed character who “made serious mistakes in life”.