The explosion likely brought down a plane believed to be carrying Wagner’s boss, flight data and video analysis suggest

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The explosion likely brought down a plane believed to be carrying Wagner’s boss, flight data and video analysis suggest



CNN

There is a cloud of white and then a plane can be seen falling, a trail of smoke or vapor extending behind it, descending rapidly against a bright blue sky. The man filming the video zooms in as the plane spirals down out of control, revealing that it is missing a wing.

Footage released by Russian state media RIA Novosti appears to show the moments before a private plane carrying mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed in a field northwest of Moscow while en route to St. Petersburg.

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CNN reviewed data and video from the flight and interviewed aviation and explosives experts to find out what happened in the minutes leading up to the crash. The analysis suggests the private jet suffered at least one “catastrophic in-flight incident” before it fell from the sky. The available video does not show this catastrophic event.

The passenger manifest released by Russia’s civil aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, showed on Wednesday that Prigozhin’s name and that of Wagner’s commander-in-chief, Dmitry Utkin, were among the seven passengers and three crew members, all of whom the Russian Emergencies Ministry said situations were killed.

Russian authorities have yet to officially confirm Prigogine’s death, but while acknowledging the crash in public comments on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to it in the past tense.

Rosaviatsia said it had launched an investigation into the “circumstances and causes of the accident”. The investigative commission has also started criminal proceedings.

The disaster came two months to the day after Prigozhin launched a short-lived rebellion against Russia’s military leadership, posing an unprecedented challenge to Putin’s authority.

The Pentagon said Thursday that Prigogine “probably” died in the crash. American and Western intelligence officials CNN spoke to believe it was deliberate. Officials said it was too early to determine what brought down the plane, but one possibility being explored was an explosion on board.

There was a lot of speculation. But no evidence has been presented pointing to the involvement of the Kremlin or Russian security services in the crash.

Experts interviewed by CNN say the available evidence suggests the crash was unlikely to have been caused by mechanical failure. The plane’s dramatic descent, the way it broke up in mid-air and the size of the debris field point to an explosion, they said.

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The private Embraer Legacy 600 (RA-02795) linked to Prigozhin, which took off from Moscow shortly before 6pm on Wednesday, showed no signs of any problems before the crash, flight tracking data showed.

Flightradar24, a site that tracks aircraft information in real time, said in a report on Wednesday that the plane reached a cruising altitude of 28,000 feet at 6:11 p.m. Moscow time, traveling at a speed of 590 miles per hour.

Then, at 6:19 p.m. local time, the plane made erratic climbs and descents, at one point climbing to over 30,000 feet before suddenly dropping from 8,000 feet in about 30 seconds. When the plane transmitted the last data, it had fallen at an altitude of 19,725 feet. According to CNN’s analysis of available flight data, the plane traveled another 30 miles before crashing.

“Although the aircraft did not transmit position information, other data such as altitude, speed, vertical speed and autopilot settings were broadcast. It is this data that gives some insight into the final moments of the flight,” the Flightradar24 report said, noting that the data showed a “dramatic descent”.

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The recent fluctuations in altitude were highly unusual, one aviation expert told CNN, and suggested the pilot was trying to stabilize the plane before the crash.

“Explosive decompression, like if a door blew off or if they had an undercarriage explosion … They would have to be able to maintain control of the plane enough to maintain that altitude and not just drop like a rock,” Stephan said Watkins, an open source research consultancy that tracks aircraft and ships.

The ill-fated luxury jet was identified by Flightradar24 as registration RA-02795, the same plane previously believed to have transported Prigogine to Belarus after a deal struck to end the rebellion required Wagner’s boss and his fighters to move into the country. Over the past two months, Russian observers and aviation experts have tracked the Embraer plane flying back and forth between Russia and Belarus, often turning off its transponder to hide its location.

CNN previously reported that US and European intelligence officials were tracking the plane’s movements, but could not say for sure if Prigogine was on board.

“He’s using it as a deception tactic,” a US official told CNN at the time about why Prigogine’s exact whereabouts were difficult to track by plane.

Two videos geolocated by CNN near the crash site show the plane with its distinctive blue tail falling from the sky. Its fuselage – the main part of the plane’s body – appears to be intact, but it is missing a wing.

Footage of the crash site, shared on Telegram by an activist monitoring group, the Belarusian Khajun Project, shows the plane’s fuselage. In the clip, the last four digits of the plane’s registration number can be seen on what’s left of the engine as the wreckage burned: 2795.

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Other videos and photos shared on Telegram, a messaging app, showed debris from the plane scattered in four locations within a radius of about 2 miles just outside the village of Kuzhenkino, in the Tver region. The fuselage of the plane was found in a field, its tail section was found nearby. Some smaller debris fell in a residential area, and the wing was found in a river, according to CNN’s analysis of visual evidence and Planet Labs satellite images.

Markus Schiller, a Europe-based missile expert who has worked on analysis for NATO and the European Union, told CNN that the available videos and the fact that multiple fields of debris were scattered over a wide area pointed to a “strong explosion.”

“The tail and wing of the aircraft can only be separated from the aircraft by explosion. It remains unclear whether it was a bomb on the plane or a missile, but the tail and wing could not have fallen any other way,” Schiller said.

CNN could not confirm how the plane was brought down, but Schiller and several other experts speculated that the crash was caused by at least one cataclysmic event that occurred in the air.

Robert Schmucker, a missile expert who advises NATO and the United Nations, said that while the crash requires a thorough on-site investigation and analysis of black box or flight data recorders to determine the cause, available evidence suggests the plane was likely shot down by explosion and not from mechanical failure.

“Planes like this don’t just fall out of the sky. Neither poor service nor pilot error would have had the effect we saw, which was the wing dropping and what appeared to be an explosion in the sky. This plane definitely did not break up due to mechanical or weather issues,” Schmucker told CNN.

He added that based on the footage and the appearance of the debris, it did not appear that the plane had been hit by a missile or anti-aircraft missile.

The Embraer Legacy 600 that crashed as of 2021 had only one accident in more than two decades of service, and it was not the result of mechanical failure, according to the International Aviation HQ website. Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer said in a statement to CNN that it had complied with international sanctions imposed on Russia and suspended its maintenance service, which includes maintenance, for the planes linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2019.

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Several residents who lived near the crash site described hearing explosions before seeing the plane fall to the ground.

A woman from Kuzhenkino told RIA Novosti that she heard a plane near her house, which is about 1,000 feet from where the Embraer’s tail section now lies.

“Then there was something like a bang, like a gunshot. Then all of a sudden an explosion, I looked up and I heard a sound above me – it was like a pop, like several explosions,” she said. “The plane started to drift. Then a puff of smoke appeared and the plane began to descend, to dive.

Given the safety record of the modern Embraer Legacy 600 jet, Daniel Kwasi Ajekum, an aviation expert and professor at the University of North Dakota, said there are only three realistic options for how the crash happened: an explosive device on the plane, a missile or mid-air collision.

But he pointed out that the latter two were less likely, given the extent of damage you’d expect to see from a missile collision, and that air traffic control would likely have picked up a collision on its radar unless it was with a drone.

“It is very difficult to understand what happened without a proper investigation,” he said, adding: “The aircraft suffered a major catastrophic breakup in flight.”

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