(Reuters) - A 40-second clip of an old interview in which Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said he would rather be killed than lie to his country, and talked about a plane disintegrating in the sky, unleashed a flood of online theorizing on Sunday about his presumed death.
Russia's aviation authority said the Wagner group chief was on a private jet that crashed northwest of Moscow with no survivors on Wednesday, exactly two months after he led a failed mutiny against army chiefs. The Kremlin said Western suggestions he had been killed on its orders were an "absolute lie."
In the clip, taken from an interview originally published on April 29 with Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov, Prigozhin said Russia was on the brink of disaster because the defence establishment was gradually kicking out truth-tellers who refused to suck up to upper management.
"Today we have reached the boiling point," he said in the clip published on Grey Zone, Wagner's Telegram channel. "Why am I speaking so honestly? Because I don't have the right, before those people who will live on in this country. They are now being lied to. Better kill me."
He added, "But I will not lie, I must say honestly that Russia is on the brink of disaster. And if these cogs are not adjusted today, then the plane will fall apart in the air."
Hundreds of responses had been posted on Grey Zone within a few hours.
"But he knew," a Telegram user whose name translates to "outpost" wrote in the first response.
Some posts speculated Prigozhin was alive. One said he would "soon jump out of a snuffbox and make the devils crap themselves."
Another said it would be cool if Prigozhin and Sergei Surovikin, the former commander of Russia's war effort, reportedly removed as head of the air force the day of the crash, "are sitting in Jamaica, drinking pina colada and taking a drag on a huge joint."
Some posts pointed to the Kremlin, with one comment saying the crash was the handiwork of President Vladimir Putin, adding, "You have to be an amoeba not to understand this."
Some posts blamed France, others Ukraine. One post said Ukraine had killed Prigozhin by order of US special services "and the Anglo-Saxons" and added, "it is inconvenient for us to lose such a hero," to which someone responded with three crying-laughing emojis.
(Reporting, writing by Elaine Monaghan)