Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that the plane crash which killed the head of the Wagner mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was caused by the detonation of hand grenades inside the aircraft.
Putin suggested on Thursday that Prigozhin’s plane was blown up from the inside, not hit by a missile as rumoured, saying that the head of Russia’s investigative committee had reported that traces of explosives were discovered in the bodies of those who died in the crash in August.
“Fragments of hand grenades were found in the bodies of those killed in the crash,” Putin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“There was no external impact on the plane – this is already an established fact,” Putin said, appearing to rubbish claims by United States officials who believed the plane was shot down.
The private Embraer jet on which Prigozhin was travelling to Saint Petersburg crashed north of Moscow killing all 10 people on board on August 23. Two other top Wagner figures, Prigozhin’s four bodyguards and a crew of three were also killed.
Putin did not give any more details about how a grenade or grenades could have been detonated on board the executive jet, but said he thought investigators were wrong not to have carried out alcohol and drug tests on the bodies of those who died in the crash.
“In my opinion, such an examination should have been carried out, but it was not,” Putin said.
Putin also claimed that searches of Wagner’s offices in St Petersburg after the crash turned up 10 billion roubles ($100m) in cash and 5kg (11 pounds) of cocaine.
The investigators of the crash have yet to report publicly on their findings. Moscow rejected an offer from Brazil, where the Embraer business jet was built, to join the crash inquiry.
The Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank monitoring the conflict in Ukraine, described Putin’s explanation for the crash as “bizarre” and intended to “deflect blame from the Kremlin”.
The ISW said that Putin appeared to be sketching a scenario involving alcohol, drugs and the mishandling of explosives by people on board the plane in an attempt to blame the victims for their own deaths.
The Russian president “implied that the plane crash victims may have been using alcohol or drugs onboard that could have led to the negligent handling of grenades (that were presumably on board for some unexplained reason)”, the think tank said.
“Putin’s bizarre explanation of the plane crash is likely an attempt to blame Prigozhin for his own and his comrades’ deaths and further disgrace him among his remaining supporters,” the ISW added.