WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is examining a number of theories about why the plane supposedly carrying mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was shot down, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday, including a surface-to-air missile that hit it. .
Russian air authorities said Prigozhin, his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin and eight other people were on board the private jet that crashed without survivors north of Moscow on Wednesday.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible that a surface-to-air missile fired from inside Russia brought down the plane.
Officials stressed that the information was still preliminary and under review, and did not rule out changing the assessment.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported a different theory: that an onboard bomb or other act of sabotage caused the crash.
It is not uncommon for there to be competing, even contradictory, intelligence views of the US government in the hours and days following major international events.
A third US official told Reuters there were a number of theories and no final conclusion had been reached.
The incident came two months after the day when Prigozhin and his mercenaries from Wagner staged a rebellion in which they took control of a southern city and advanced towards Moscow, shooting down a number of Russian Air Force planes and killing their pilots.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday he was not surprised by reports that Prigozhin died in a plane crash, adding that not much happens in Russia without President Vladimir Putin standing behind him.
On Thursday, Putin said he wanted to express his sincere condolences to the families of those who died in the accident, and said it was necessary to wait for the outcome of the official investigation. Prigozhin, 62, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, has often criticized senior Russian military officers for what he says is his incompetent prosecution of the war in Ukraine.
The Embraer executive jet that crashed in Russia has only recorded one accident in its more than 20 years of service, and it was not related to mechanical failure.
While the Kremlin portrays it as a purely private business operation, it has used Wagner to expand Russian influence on the continent in competition with Western powers such as France and the United States.
Prigozhin and a Russian company he controlled were indicted in 2018 and accused of funding a propaganda operation to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election to influence it in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump and disparage his rival Hillary Clinton.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idris Ali; Editing by Alistair Bell
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