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Villagers hear bang, then see Prigozhin plane plummet to the ground

Villagers hear bang, then see Prigozhin plane plummet to the ground

KUZHENKINO, Russia (Reuters) - Residents of a village near the site of a plane crash which is believed to have killed Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said they had heard a bang, then saw the jet plummet to the ground.

The plane, an Embraer Legacy 600 private jet, crashed on Wednesday near the village of Kuzhenkino in Russia's Tver region on its way from Moscow to St. Petersburg and killed all 10 people on board - seven passengers and three crew members.

There has been no official comment from the Kremlin or the Defence Ministry on the fate of Prigozhin but a Telegram channel linked to his Wagner mercenary group, Grey Zone, pronounced him dead.

A Reuters reporter at the crash site early on Thursday saw men taking away black body bags on stretchers.

Part of the plane's blue-and-white liveried tail and other fragments lay on the ground near a wooded area.

Forensic investigators had erected a tent and lighting gear. Parts of the wreckage lay near what appeared to be a half-built abandoned structure.

Kuzhenkino resident Vitaly Stepenok, 72, told Reuters: "I hear an explosion or a bang. Usually, if an explosion happens on the ground then you get an echo, but it was just a bang and I looked up and saw white smoke."

"One wing flew off in one direction and the fuselage went like that," he said, gesturing with his arms to show how the plane headed down towards the ground.

"And then it glided down on one wing. It didn't nose-dive, it was gliding."

Standing in a village street, Stepenok said he was afraid the plane would fall onto houses there.

"I was over there. I jumped on my bike and was there (at the site) in about 20 minutes. Everything was on fire. People were walking around. They dragged someone out, their remains... I couldn't make it out. I just saw the number on the plane, which I told them, and that was it."

Another villager, who gave his name as Anatoly, said: "In terms of what might have happened, I'll just say this: it wasn't thunder, it was a metallic bang - let's put it that way. I've heard things like that before."

"Over there by that mast. And it fell over there," he said pointing towards a farm.

Police had secured the site and throughout the morning police cars came and went. At one point, a helicopter landed, flying in over the trees. Two buses also arrived escorted by police cars in a convoy.

The crash occurred two months to the day since Prigozhin led an abortive mutiny against the army top brass, accusing them of incompetence in their handling of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Russian investigators said they had opened a criminal investigation. Some unnamed sources told Russian media they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles. Reuters could not confirm that.

(Writing by Angus MacSwan, Editing by Bernadette Baum)