Yevgeny Prigozhin, the most powerful mercenary in Russia who stood up to President Vladimir Putin, was killed along with all other passengers on the flight he was in, which crashed on Wednesday evening north of Moscow, authorities said.
The incident comes two months to the day after he led an abortive mutiny against the army top brass. There was no official comment from the Kremlin or the Defence Ministry on the fate of Prigozhin, who headed the Wagner mercenary group and a self-declared enemy of the army's leadership over what he argued was its incompetent prosecution of Russia's war in Ukraine.
Grey Zone, a Telegram channel linked to Wagner pronounced him dead and hailed him as a hero and a patriot who it said had died at the hands of unidentified people it called "traitors to Russia."
Without verifiable facts and amid speculations, some of the supporters of Prigozhin blamed the Russian state for his death; others pointed at Ukraine, which was due to mark its independence day on Thursday.
In a mark of respect and mourning, a building housing Wagner's offices in St Petersburg in Russia lit up its windows after dark to display a giant cross.
The death of Prigozhin will leave the Wagner Group without a leader and raise questions about its future operations in Africa and elsewhere. The group had incurred President Putin's wrath in June after staging an abortive armed mutiny against the top brass of the nation's army.
Whatever led to the death of Prigozhin, his mutiny would go down as one of the most serious challenges to the authority of Russian President Putin since he came to power in 1999.
Wagner Co-Founder Also Killed:
The Russian aviation agency, Rosaviatsia published the names of all 10 people onboard the flight that crash, including Prigozhin and that of Dmitry Utkin, his right-hand man who helped form the mercenary group and bore the call sign "Wagner".
Russian investigators informed that they had opened a criminal investigation in order to determine what had happened. Some unnamed sources told Russian media that they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles. The same could not be confirmed by Reuters.
The aircraft, which was traveling from Moscow to St Petersburg, crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver Region, said Russia's emergency situations ministry.