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Russia rejects report linking journalist killings to Putin ally

January 11, 2019

Russian investigators on Friday dismissed a report linking the murders of three Russian journalists in the Central Africa Republic last year to an ally of President Vladimir Putin, insisting the trio died in a robbery.

Reporter Orkhan Dzhemal, director Alexander Rastorguyev and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were killed in July last year while reporting on Russian mercenaries in the war-torn country.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oligarch and Kremlin critic, was funding their project.

A Khodorkovsky-backed investigation released late Thursday said it had evidence the journalists were being tracked by a Central African gendarme with links to high-ranked Russian officials in the country.

Khodorkovky’s press secretary Maxim Dbar told AFP that the investigation, presented to media in London Thursday, found the group’s driver used a fake name and reported to the gendarme.

Dbar said the reporters were introduced to the driver by a journalist who works for a news agency owned by Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin.

Prigozhin is a Putin ally who — according to various media reports — funds the private military company Wagner that the three men were investigating when they were killed.

In a statement, Russia’s Investigative Committee said the report was an attempt by Khodorkovsky’s media project to “justify” sending the journalists on such a dangerous trip without the necessary safety measures.

It reiterated investigators’ belief that the journalists were killed after resisting armed robbers.

The three were ambushed and shot by “a group of dark-skinned men, talking in Arabic,” it said, adding that the inquiry was continuing.

Russian officials and state media have sought to downplay the nature of the journalists’ assignment. There has been no official acknowledgement of Wagner’s role in conflicts or casualties among its fighters.

Wagner’s soldiers have fought in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, according to Western and independent Russian media reports as well as foreign governments.

Russia officially has military and civilian instructors in CAR to train local troops and experts have suggested they could be part of Wagner.

Moscow’s influence in CAR has been growing since 2017, when the UN-backed government there called for help to fight militias rampaging through the country.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.