Ukraine blames Russia for murder of anti-Kremlin journalist

Ukraine blames Russia for murder of anti-Kremlin journalist

A man hangs a picture of Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko, who was shot dead in the Ukrainian capital on May 29, on a fence of the Russian embassy in Kiev, Ukraine May 30, 2018. REUTERS Photo

Ukraine charged on Wednesday that Russia's "totalitarian machine" was behind the murder of anti-Kremlin reporter Arkady Babchenko, prompting Moscow to furiously deny the blame.

A prominent Russian war correspondent famous for his fierce tirades against Moscow, Babchenko was shot dead on Tuesday evening in an apparent contract-style killing in the stairwell of his building in Kiev. The 41-year-old had moved to the Ukrainian capital last year following a campaign of harassment in Moscow.

He was the latest Kremlin critic living in Kiev to be killed in less than two years.

Ukrainian police have opened a probe into premeditated murder, saying they suspected the crime was linked to his "professional activities".

"I am convinced that the Russian totalitarian machine did not forgive him his honesty and principled stance," Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said late Tuesday.

"A true friend of Ukraine who was telling the world the truth about Russian aggression. His murderers should be punished." An aide to the Ukrainian interior minister, Anton Gerashchenko, also pointed the finger at Moscow, writing on Facebook: "The Putin regime targets those it cannot break or intimidate."

He said the Ukrainian government should ensure the safety of Babchenko's family.

Many politicians and observers including Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin suggested Russia wanted to sow chaos in the country -- already wracked by a four-year conflict with pro-Russian rebels in the east -- ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Ties between Russia and Ukraine were shredded after a popular uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed president in Kiev in 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea and moved to support insurgents in the east of the former Soviet state.

Russian authorities furiously denied the blame, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying it was "very sad" Moscow had been accused of murdering the reporter.

"The Ukrainian prime minister is already talking about how it was done by Russian secret services," he said.

"This fashion of conducting international affairs is very sad," Lavrov told reporters. Investigators in Moscow opened their own probe.

"The Investigative Committee is not going to turn a blind eye to the cruel crimes against Russian citizens," it said in a statement.

Ukrainian police spokesman Yaroslav Trakalo said Babchenko was found bleeding by his wife after she heard shooting, adding that he died in an ambulance on his way to hospital.

The journalist had received three gunshots to the back.

His murder was reminiscent of the assassination of several prominent Kremlin critics in Russia, including politician Boris Nemtsov who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015 and journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot and killed in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment in 2006.

A number of Kremlin critics have also been killed in Kiev in recent years.

Pavel Sheremet, a dual Russian and Belarusian citizen, died when his car exploded in the centre of Kiev in 2016 in still unexplained circumstances.

Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian lawmaker who went into exile in Ukraine, was gunned down in central Kiev last year.

Babchenko fought in Russia's two Chechen campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s before becoming a war correspondent and author. He repeatedly said he faced death threats.

He contributed to a number of media outlets including top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Babchenko was also an avid blogger, accusing Russian authorities of slaughtering Kremlin critics and unleashing wars in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.

He wrote about a young Russian soldier's experience in the Chechen campaigns in a book published in English under the title "One Soldier's War".

He made a name for himself with his poignant reportages from the frontlines, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014.

In recent years his increasingly bombastic posts constantly pushed the boundaries of good taste and some of his colleagues and followers stopped reading him on Facebook. But his killing triggered an outpouring of grief among liberal Russians.

Babchenko left Russia in February 2017 after receiving threats, living first in the Czech Republic and Israel before moving to Kiev.He had hosted a programme on the Crimean Tatar TV station ATR for the past year. Vigils in memory of the slain journalist were planned in Russia and Ukraine.