Putin says Wagner chief Prigozhin’s plane blown up by hand grenades on board

Russian president Vladimir Putin said the plane carrying Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was blown up from the inside and fragments of hand grenades have been found in the bodies of those killed in the crash.

This is the first time Mr Putin commented on the details of the plane crash that killed Prigozhin – the mercenary leader who had challenged his regime and launched a military coup by marching onto Moscow in a dramatic threat to the Kremlin not seen in decades.

"Fragments of hand grenades were found in the bodies of those killed in the crash," Mr Putin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, but did not share any details on the type and number of hand grenades that could have been detonated on board.

He denied an external influence or targeting of the plane from the outside.

"There was no external impact on the plane – this is already an established fact," he said, rejecting assertions by unidentified US officials who said shortly after the crash that they believed it had been shot down. Mr Putin said the head of Russia’s investigative committee had reported to him a few days ago.

The private Embraer jet carrying the Wagner leader and the mercenary group’s co-founder along with eight other people crashed north of Moscow on 23 August. All 10 people onboard were reported dead.

Mr Putin also suggested that the remains of the passengers, including Prigozhin, should have been tested for alcohol and drugs. He said he thought investigators were wrong to have not carried out these tests on the bodies of those killed in the crash.

"In my opinion, such an examination should have been carried out but it was not," he said.

The searches of Wagner’s offices in St Petersburg by the FSB found 10bn roubles ($100m) in cash and 5kg (11 pounds) of cocaine, he said.

The investigators of the crash have yet to report publicly on the cause. Neither Wagner nor Prigozhin’s family could be reached to comment on Mr Putin’s remarks.

Prigozhin had claimed pride in casting Wagner as the world’s most war-hardened fighting force and was known to have carried out Russia’s dirty work in middle-east and Africa. The mercenary fighters waged a brutal battle – dubbed the “meat grinder” – in Bakhmut last year in winter, where they eventually handed Moscow its biggest territorial gain in many months.

Just two months before his death, he had accused Mr Putin’s top military brass, defence minister Sergei Shoigu and general staff Valery Gerasimov of incompetence and warned that Russia could lose the war in Ukraine unless it raised its game.

The brief mutiny against Russia’s defence establishment posed the biggest challenge to Putin’s rule since the former KGB spy came to power in 1999. According to the leaders in the West, not only did it expose the strains on Russia of the war in Ukraine, it also showed the worsening relations between the Russian president and his long-time stooge.