A body found slumped in a Moscow lift. A discarded pistol and four spent shells. A mysterious thin man in a black baseball cap. The murder yesterday of Anna Politkovskaya, the most famous reporter in Russia, is a story as sinister as anything she investigated in her fearless, award-winning career.
The 48-year-old, lauded by journalists and writers around the world for her exposés in Chechnya, appears to have been assassinated. Her most powerful enemy was President Vladimir Putin. The murder came two days before she was due to publish an exposé of the Chechnyan Prime Minister.
The gun found near her apartment block in central Moscow was a 9mm Makarov, known as the weapon of choice for Russian hitmen. Police said they were searching for a man in his twenties dressed in a black cap, seen just before neighbours discovered her body in the lift.
Amnesty International said that it was "shocked, saddened and deeply angered" at the death of Politkovskaya, who had won its international media award in 2002. A spokesman said: "Russia has lost a great human- rights defender."
The deputy editor at the bi-weekly liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where she worked, said he believed the murder was linked to her work. "The first thing that comes to mind is that Anna was killed for her professional activities," said Vitaly Yaroshevsky. "We don't see any other motive."
The mother of two had received death threats before, but it was thought her gender and high profile might spare her the fate of others killed for writing uncomfortable truths since the fall of the Soviet Union.
She was the most high-profile journalist to be murdered since 2004 when the US-born editor of Forbes Russia, Paul Klebnikov, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Two years on, the identity and motives of his attackers remain unknown.
The British journalist Anne Applebaum, who has worked in Russia extensively, said: "It is terrible news. She was extremely brave. She kept on going to Chechnya even long after the Russian government had stopped protecting journalists there."
Politkovskaya was a loner who lived plainly, said Applebaum, and had a style of writing that was "thoroughly unsentimental and didn't romanticise things at all. She just documented the story in a cool fashion. She did an amazing story about the shocking, slovenly system of what happens to the bodies of Russian soldiers after they die, about how little anyone in the system cared."
Joan Smith, a columnist for this paper who knew Politkovskaya personally, said: "Anna had more courage than most of us can begin to imagine, and her death is a reminder of the violent state she exposed so vividly in Putin's Russia."
Smith last saw Polit- kovskaya at the British launch of her book on the President. It was sponsored by the writers' organisation PEN, which kept, "as far as we could, a watching brief on Anna, aware that her life was always in danger".
In February 2001, she was accused of being a spy for the now dead Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, the man who would claim to have masterminded the Beslan school siege. She was held in a pit for three days by the FSB security service without food or water. In 2002, she was involved in negotiating for the release of hostages during the Moscow theatre siege, something her critics claimed proved that she was too close to the Chechen rebels for her own good.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the subject of her next article, commands a private army and has been accused by human rights groups of being complicit in many thousand civilian "disappearances" in recent years. She claimed to have mobile phone footage proving his complicity in the murder of Russian servicemen and civilian kidnappings.
Smith said: "At the time of the Beslan siege, we heard the barely credible news that Anna had been poisoned by a cup of tea as she tried to reach the scene of the outrage. Now an assassin's bullets have silenced her quiet, forceful voice."