MOSCOW — The Kremlin is dismissing allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the apparent death of Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash in Russia this week.

The Russian government was reacting to reports citing U.S. and other Western officials who suspected Putin may have ordered Prigozhin's death.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said claims of Putin's involvement in Wednesday's crash are "absolute lies."

Peskov noted there is "lots of speculation" around the crash and the "tragic deaths" of people aboard the plane and implied the West was determined to spread disinformation.

On Thursday, Putin expressed sympathies for the families of the 10 people who died and said initial reports suggested several were members of the Wagner mercenary group.

The Russian president also appeared to eulogize Prigozhin — referring to him in the past tense, without unequivocally stating the Wagner chief had died in the crash.

Russian authorities said Wednesday that the name Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared on the list of passengers aboard the Embraer Legacy 600 business jet that went down, but have not yet disclosed if the mercenary chief's body was positively identified among the crash victims.

On Thursday, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said it is "likely Prigozhin was killed."

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