The plane crash reported to have killed Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was caused by an intentional explosion, US and Western officials believe.
A preliminary Washington intelligence assessment has found an explosion brought down the jet, officials said, but they provided no further details on what caused the blast.
One of the officials, who were not authorised to comment and spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, said on Thursday evening that an explosion falls in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics”.
The White House declined to comment but at a Pentagon briefing US Department of Defense spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said there was no information to indicate that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane. He would not be drawn on what else could have caused the crash.
Details of the US assessment surfaced as Putin sent his condolences to the families of the 10 people on board the private jet which crashed on Wednesday soon after taking off from Moscow.
He described Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” in a televised address but said he had “made serious mistakes”.
Putin said Russia will look into what investigators say regarding the crash, but further details on the incident will take time.
The president said Prigozhin’s Wagner group had “made a significant contribution” during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We remember this and won’t forget it. I knew Prigozhin from a long time, from the early 1900s. He had a difficult path and made serious mistakes in his life. But he got results - for himself, and for the common cause when I asked him, like in the last few months,” he added.
His comments come 24 hours after the jet crashed just north of Moscow.
Some Western experts believe that Putin may have ordered the crash in an assassination of Prigozhin after he led a recent mutiny against Russia’s military.
US President Joe Biden has already said that there is little that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind and the former MI6 boss Sir John Sawers today said it appeared that the Russian leader had ordered the strike.
“All the indications point to the fact that Putin has taken him out… he is making clear to everyone both inside Russia and outside that he’s not going to brook any challenge,” Sir John said.
“I would have thought there was some device on board that brought the plane down suddenly and killed all those on board. It was a way of taking out the entire Wagner leadership in one go.”
Other reports earlier suggested that two surface to air missiles might have been used to bring Prigozhin’s plane down and BBC Monitoring’s Russia editor Vitaly Shevkenko said he had “seen a number of video clips filmed by eyewitnesses who said that they had heard two explosions and they drew the conclusion that the aircraft had been shot out of the sky.”
Ministry of Defence sources were today cited as believing that Russia’s FSB security service was most likely to be behind Prigozhin’s suspected death.
Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier his country was not involved in the crash but “everybody realises who has something to do with it”.
They are both presumed dead, along with eight others on board, Russian media has reported, two months after they staged a mutiny that dented Putin’s authority.
Russia’s civil aviation agency said that Mr Prigozhin and six top lieutenants were on the business jet with a crew of three when it crashed.
Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited anonymous sources in Wagner who said Mr Prigozhin was dead.
There has been no official confirmation. Gen Ryder says that the initial assessment from the Pentagon is that Yevgeny Prigozhin was “likely killed” in the plane crash.
President Zelensky said on Thursday: “We had nothing to do with it. Everybody realises who has something to do with it.”
He also appeared to reference his ongoing requests from Western allies for war planes, to help Ukraine’s military efforts against Russia’s invasion.
Zelensky said on Thursday: “When Ukraine approached the world about planes, we didn’t mean this. We had something completely different in mind and wanted support. Although maybe even this will definitely help in a certain sense.”
It comes as Norway announced it will donate US-made F-16 combat aircraft to Ukraine, joining an effort led by the Netherlands and Denmark.
Norwegian prime minister Jonas Gahr Stoere announced the donation during a visit to Kyiv on Thursday.
F-16s have been on Ukraine’s wish list for a long time because of their destructive power and global availability. The fighter jet is equipped with a 20mm cannon and can carry bombs, rockets and missiles.
Meanwhile police cordoned off the field where the jet went down in Kuzhenkino, about 185 miles northwest of Moscow, as investigators studied its wreckage on Thursday. Vehicles took away the bodies.
It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, including top leaders who are normally careful about their security, were on the same flight.
At Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross, and Prigozhin supporters built a makeshift memorial, piling red and white flowers outside the building, along with company flags and candles.
Putin had earlier remained silent on the crash while he addressed the BRICS summit in Johannesburg via video link.
Ukraine on Thursday marked its second Independence Day since Russia’s full-scale invasion, with officials vowing to keep up their fight to drive out the Kremlin’s forces and local people remembering their fallen loved ones.
The national holiday coincided with the war’s 18-month milestone, giving a somber mood to the commemorations.
“We remember everyone who gave their lives for freedom and independence, for the free future of Ukraine,” Mr Zelensky said in a social media post.
He said that an independent Ukraine is “what we are fighting for.”