The Governor of a vast, resource-rich Russian region was shot dead by a contract killer yesterday within sight of the Kremlin.
Valentin Tsvetkov, governor of the far eastern province of Magadan, was shot in the head as he walked along the busy Novy Arbat in Moscow while talking on his mobile phone.
President Vladimir Putin immediately ordered Russia's chief prosecutor, Vladimir Ustinov, and the Interior Minister, Boris Gryzlov, to take personal charge of the investigation into the murder.
Witnesses said the attacker was a young man dressed in a balaclava and anorak who leapt out from behind a billboard, fired two shots from a silencer-equipped pistol, then jumped in a waiting car and sped away.
The first bullet killed Mr. Tsvetkov; the second was apparently aimed at, but missed, an aide who was with him. "This was clearly a contract hit," said Vladimir Pronin, Moscow's police chief. "It was the work of a professional killer".
Mr Tsvetkov, 54, had just got out of his car and was walking to an office building that houses Magadan's representation in Moscow when he was shot. That section of Novy Arbat, three blocks from the Kremlin, is regularly used by President Vladimir Putin and other top officials travelling to and from their offices.
Contract killings of businessmen, bankers and even politicians are common in Russia; police registered 327 last year. But Mr Tsvetkov was the first official of such a high rank to be killed in post-Soviet times.
"This is probably the most sensational contract killing of this year," said Anatoly Vinogradov of the police organised crime department.
As elected governor of Magadan, one of Russia's 89 administrative units, Mr Tsvetkov ruled a sparsely-populated territory larger than France and Spain combined and fabulously rich in resources, including gold, silver, tin, forestry, furs and fisheries. Unlike Western countries, where there are strict firewalls separating politics and business, it is not uncommon for high state officials in Russia to own or direct private companies in tandem with their administrative duties.
Mr Tsvetkov, who had been governor since 1996, owned a gold-refining plant and had reportedly been trying to bring the region's gold-mining industry under his control.
"I believe this was not a political killing," Sergei Mironov, Speaker of Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, told news agencies. "The governor must have harmed someone's business interests. Regrettably, lawlessness still reigns in this country".
Eight parliamentary deputies have been murdered since 1992 but no case has been solved. The most recent was Vladimir Golovyov, shot dead near his home in Moscow in August. Many observers believe that Mr Golovyov's death may also have been connected to his business dealings.
Mr Tsvetkov was a member of the Federation Council in Magadan from 1993 and was elected to the State Duma (lower house of parliament) in 1995 before becoming governor.
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