Russian journalists' murder in Central African Republic was a 'pre-planned assassination', say private investigators

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Two weeks after the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic (CAR), a private investigation group has rejected the official explanation for their death. Both the government of the war-torn African republic and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had asserted that the men died in an armed robbery. But the initial findings of the investigation, commissioned by

Putin critic and former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, says this version does not bear scrutiny. Instead, it points to the involvement of local government forces – and, possibly, to the private Russian military groups the journalists were investigating. Journalists Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Orkhan Dzhemal had travelled to the CAR to investigate the activities of Wagner, a mercenary company associated with businessmen Yevgeny Prigozhin. Mr Prigozhin is widely referred as “Putin’s chef” on account of his links to and multiple catering contracts with the Russian government. He has also been linked to Russian troll farm operations, and was recently indicted by US special counsel Robert Mueller. The new investigation into the killings attempts to piece together a picture of the journalists’ last few days. It accepts some details are still hazy, but makes the following assertions. READ MORE Killed Russian journalists were investigating ‘mercenaries’ in Africa On 28 July, the journalists arrived in the country’s capital, Bangui. From there, they travelled west, to Berengo, and attempted to visit a base where they believed Wagner soldiers were based. At a checkpoint near to the base, they were turned back near to the base on account of them not possessing proper military accreditation. The group then communicated with a journalist working for the Federal News Agency, a Russian media structure linked to Mr Prigozhin. That journalist provided them with details of a fixer, who supposedly used to work for the UN. He may also have communicated details of their further plans elsewhere. The group arranged to meet that fixer later in their trip. On 30 July, the group headed towards diamond and gold mines in the east of the country. All the time, they kept in contact with editors back home. But as night fell, the group erred from a pre-arranged plan to follow a road eastwards. Instead, they travelled north, and were ambushed. It is unclear why they changed their route. Their bodies were found with multiple gunshot wounds, alongside an abandoned vehicle, approximately 20 miles north of the nearest major town, Sibut. Journalist Roman Popkov, who reported the group’s initial findings, told The Independent that new understandings undermined the official robbery narrative. The investigation indicated that this was a pre-planned killing, he said: “Our sources determined that the killers had set up a temporary camp at the point where the ambush happened. Whoever killed the journalists left expensive items in the car, including three full canisters of petrol, some of the technical equipment and clothing. And then they packed up their camp. None of that seems consistent with a robbery.” Mr Popkov said that local sources had also identified a car carrying three armed men of “European” appearance, presumably mercenaries, and two locals. The car passed a checkpoint near to the site of the ambush a short while before the journalists’ car passed through. About an hour later, the first car returned in the opposite direction. Leaked footage shows Russian prison torture Rejecting the robbery theory, the interim report suggests two other working theories, requiring further investigation. First, that the journalists were killed by militants associated with the Seleka, a mainly Muslim coalition of rebels who control large parts of the country. Second, that CAR government forces were involved. According to the investigation, neither explanation excludes the participation of Russian mercenary forces, who, it claims, have developed close relationships with both groups. Over the past five to 10 years, Russia has stepped up its presence in the African continent. In the last year, it has paid particular attention to the CAR. Following decades of coups, famine and civil wars, the impoverished country is ranked by the UN as the least developed country in the world. It has a GDP of less than $400 (£314) per capita. But by other measurements, the country is exceptionally rich – in deposits of uranium, gold, diamonds and many other rare minerals. This is at least part of the story of Russia’s newfound interest in the region. There is hope for damaged victims of a brutal diamond war in the Central African Republic appeal-afpgt.jpg AN13213881Children-at-the-C.jpg appeal2-unicef.jpg 3 show all “Only bears in the Arctic would not be interested in African resources,” admitted Evgeniy Korendyasov, head of Russian African studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But the academic told The Independent that it was far from the only factor driving Russian foreign policy: ”Russia is interested in a wider agenda of geopolitical stability, fighting terrorism, about increasing its international prestige.” In October last year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met with CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadera in Sochi, where they agreed on new terms of military cooperation. Then, Russia successfully lobbied for an exception to a UN arms embargo to provide weapons and training to the African state. In January this year, a Russian military IL-76 plane brought those weapons and 175 instructors to the country, only five of whom were officially military. Reports suggest other business and semi-official military operations seemed to have flowed from that. The Russian government has denied operative control of private armies the likes of Wagner, which are both unofficial and illegal under Russian law. It has also vehemently denied any involvement in the death of the three journalists. But Mr Popkov said that the investigation team are puzzled that the Russian government is sticking to the original claim of armed robbery. “This is simply not consistent with the facts,” he said. “To insist on this weak explanation is, at a minimum, strange.” source: independent

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