MOSCOW (CNN) – Three Russian journalists who were reportedly investigating a paramilitary organization with links to the Kremlin were killed in the Central African Republic this week in what authorities describe as an ambush.
The men were in the country to investigate the activities of Wagner, a shadowy Russian private military firm, a Russian online news outlet, the Center for Investigation Management (TsUR), said in a Facebook post. Anastasia Gorshkova, deputy editor of TsUR, confirmed the journalists were on an investigative assignment in CAR.
Wagner has deployed mercenaries in Syria and Ukraine. The US Treasury has sanctioned the group for recruiting soldiers to fight with separatists in eastern Ukraine, and dozens of Wagner contractors were killed or injured during a firefight with US forces and their allies in Syria in February.
The journalists were identified as Orhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko by documents found with their bodies, the Russian foreign ministry said Tuesday. They were killed near the city of Sibut, about 185 miles north of the capital Bangui. Sibut’s mayor, Henri Depele, told Reuters the three were ambushed by armed men who opened fire on their vehicle. Depele said their driver survived.
“The Russian embassy in CAR, unfortunately, was not informed about the presence of Russian journalists in the country,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. “Employees of our diplomatic mission are now in close contact with local law enforcement agencies and government agencies to discover all the circumstances relating to the deaths of Russian citizens.” Russian law enforcement have opened a criminal probe into their deaths.
Russia has relied on — but never officially acknowledged the existence of — mercenary firms in conflict zones in Syria and Ukraine. Wagner’s activities in Africa have been the subject of recent media reports by independent investigative outlets in Russia.
The independent channel TV Rain recently published an investigation into the alleged efforts of Russian private military firms to expand into new markets and other countries, citing Yevgeny Shabaev, who has spoken in Russian-language media on behalf of mercenaries wounded in the Syria attack.
The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier this year confirmed the presence in CAR of five military and 170 civilian Russian instructors involved in training the country’s military personnel. CAR has been wracked by religious and ethnic conflict for the past several years. The United Nations has deployed a peacekeeping force — MINUSCA — charged with protecting civilians caught up in the conflict. The presence of Russian forces sparked media speculation about Russia’s military involvement in the country and the possible presence of military contractors.
“There is no sensation in the presence of Russian instructors in the CAR, no one hid anything,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “The murdered Russian journalists, based on the location of the bodies, did not move at all to the place where the instructors work. Moreover, based on information received from the local site, they ignored warnings that they are leaving the zone controlled by local law enforcement agencies. What they really were doing in the CAR, what were their goals and objectives – is a question.”
Wagner is led by Dmitry Utkin, a former colonel in the Russian special forces who is under US sanctions for assisting pro-Russian separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Utkin was once head of security for a Russian oligarch called Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to the Kremlin. Prigozhin was indicted by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February for funding the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll group accused of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election campaign by sowing discord online.
Prigozhin controls a network of Russian companies, including Concord Management and Consulting. Company records show that someone named Dmitry Utkin, the same name as the Wagner boss, is director general of Concord.
Prigozhin and Concord have denied being linked to Wagner. Concord said last year: “We do not have any information about this organization.”
Russian journalists investigating the activities of Wagner and Prigozhin say they have encountered a pattern of harassment and intimidation.
Earlier this year, Maxim Borodin, a Russian reporter known for his investigations into Russian mercenaries in Syria, died after a fall from his apartment in Yekaterinburg.
Officials said there was no sign of foul play, but Borodin’s death cast a spotlight on the risks and threats sometimes faced by journalists in Russia. Borodin had been investigating Wagner’s activities.
TsUR, the outlet the three slain journalists were on assignment for in CAR, is financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled tycoon who is a staunch opponent of the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky has also funded Dossier Center, another investigative project that is a potential irritant to the Kremlin. Its focus is investigating what the organization describes as high-level official corruption among members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova told Russian state television channel Rossiya 24 on Wednesday that the bodies of the three journalists killed in CAR will be sent back home in the coming days, and that law-enforcement agents would visit the scene of the attack. She said the journalists had entered the country as tourists.