Video has surfaced showing people posing as "potential buyers" onboard the plane before takeoff. The "potential buyers," including a woman with a handbag, reportedly had access to the plane for around an hour between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. The plane crashed early evening.
Prigozhin was one of seven passengers and three crew members onboard the doomed plane that crashed into a ball of flames. The plane was on its way to Saint Petersburg when it crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in Russia's western Tver region. Flight data shows the plane reached an altitude of some 28,000 feet before it suddenly stopped transmitting tracking details.
The Russian state media reported that the bodies of eight people had been found on the crash site. TASS, the official state news agency, reported that the plane "burned up" on impact. It had been in the air for about half an hour.
Debris from the wreckage was scattered over a wide expanse near Kuzhenkino, and witnesses reported hearing an explosion followed by the plane's descent.
Video released by RIA Novosti showed a plane plummeting with one wing missing. The authenticity of the video could not be confirmed.
"It was something like a bang, like a shot," a woman from Kuzhenkino told RIA Novosti. "Then suddenly an explosion, I looked up and heard a sound above me – it was like pops, like several explosions. The plane started to swerve. Then a plume of smoke emerged and the plane began to descend, to dive."
Russian authorities are still investigating and conducting search operations.
An onboard bomb or a missile could have caused the crash, according to CNN veteran science and aerospace reporter Miles O'Brien.
"It’s coming down quickly in a spin, and it’s trailing a lot of smoke. So, this is an aircraft that was on fire. And it looks like some structural pieces, aerodynamic surfaces, were missing," he said. "An aircraft like this... they just don't catastrophically drop out of the sky without something very unusual happening."
However, U.S. officials cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about the cause, but are not ruling out that an onboard explosive device caused the crash.
The crash came two months after Prigozhin mounted a mutiny against Russia's military leadership. Prigozhin's troops seized key military sites and marched toward Moscow where the Kremlin had deployed heavily armed troops to the streets. (Related: Was Prigozhin’s mutiny a Western intelligence op derailed by Russian spies?)
The showdown was averted, however, after a deal was struck that sent Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters to neighboring Belarus. Experts speculated that the warlord became a dead man walking after posing the biggest challenge against Russian President Vladimir Putin's 23-year rule.
"I don't know for a fact what happened, but I'm not surprised," said U.S. President Joe Biden, suggesting Putin's involvement.
Bill Browder, a Putin critic and formerly the largest investor in Russia, said other Wagner leaders and Prigozhin allies may now be either on the run or in hiding.
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Watch Brannon Howse report about about the plane crash that killed Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
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