Memorial held for Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, spokespeople say

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — A memorial service has taken place for mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash last week, his spokespeople said Tuesday in a terse statement on social media.

“Those who wish to bid their farewell” to the 62-year-old mercenary leader should go to the Porokhovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, his hometown, the statement said.

Earlier media reports about the funeral mentioned other cemeteries in the city as likely sites for the burial, which has been shrouded in secrecy.

It wasn’t clear from the statement if Prigozhin had already been buried or if it was still to happen.

Earlier, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin is not planning to attend a funeral for Prigozhin, who challenged the Russian leader’s authority in an armed rebellion in June. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn’t give any details about the burial because it was a private family matter.

The tight secrecy and confusion surrounding the funeral of Prigozhin and his top lieutenants reflected a dilemma faced by the Kremlin amid swirling speculation that the crash was likely a vendetta for his mutiny.

A woman lights a candle at an informal street memorial for Wagner Group members killed in a plane crash, near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, August 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

While it tried to avoid any pomp-filled ceremony for the man branded by Putin as a traitor for his June 23-24 rebellion, the Kremlin couldn’t afford to denigrate Prigozhin, who was given Russia’s highest award for leading Wagner forces in Ukraine and was idolized by many of the country’s hawks.

Putin’s comments on Prigozhin’s death reflected that careful stand. He noted last week that Wagner leaders “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine and described Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” and “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life.”

Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, noted that Prigozhin has become a legendary figure for his supporters who are increasingly critical of the authorities.

“Prigozhin’s funeral raises an issue of communication between the bureaucratic Russian government system that doesn’t have much political potential and politically active patriotic segment of the Russian public,” Markov said.

The country’s top criminal investigation agency, the Investigative Committee, officially confirmed Prigozhin’s death on Sunday.

The committee didn’t say what might have caused Prigozhin’s business jet to plummet from the sky minutes after taking off from Moscow for St. Petersburg. Just before the crash, Prigozhin had returned from a trip to Africa, where he sought to expand Wagner Group’s activities.

Mourners by the coffin of the Wagner Group’s logistics chief Valery Chekalov, killed in a plane crash, during a funeral at the Severnoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Also on Tuesday, a funeral was held at St. Petersburg’s Northern Cemetery for Wagner’s logistics chief Valery Chekalov, who died in the August 23 crash alongside Prigozin.

Prigozhin’s second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin, a retired military intelligence officer who gave the mercenary group its name based on his own nom de guerre, was also among the 10 people killed in the crash.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded that an intentional explosion caused the plane to crash, and Western officials have pointed to a long list of Putin’s foes who have been assassinated. The Kremlin rejected Western allegations the president was behind the crash as an “absolute lie.”

The crash came exactly two months after the brutal and profane mercenary boss launched a rebellion against the Russian military leadership. Prigozhin ordered his mercenaries to take over the military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then began a march on Moscow. They downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen pilots.

Putin denounced the revolt as “treason” and vowed to punish its perpetrators but hours later struck a deal that saw Prigozhin ending the mutiny in exchange for amnesty and permission for him and his troops to move to Belarus.

The fate of Wagner, which until recently played a prominent role in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine and was involved in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries, is uncertain.

Putin said Wagner fighters could sign a contract with the Russian military, move to Belarus, or retire from service. Several thousand have deployed to Belarus, where they are in a camp southeast of the capital, Minsk.

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