Disbelief as Chechens held for Russian editor's murder

Andrew Osborn
Wednesday 29 September 2004 00:00

Russian police claimed yesterday that one of the country's most brutal and enigmatic contract killings - the drive-by shooting of the American journalist Paul Klebnikov in July - had all but been solved and two suspects arrested.

Russian police claimed yesterday that one of the country's most brutal and enigmatic contract killings - the drive-by shooting of the American journalist Paul Klebnikov in July - had all but been solved and two suspects arrested.

Mr Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, ruffled feathers in May by publishing the country's first rich list, "outing" Russia's 100 wealthiest people. On 9 July he was shot nine times from a passing car by more than one gunman as he left his office in north central Moscow. He died in hospital.

Most analysts have suggested that his murder was likely to have been connected to the rich list, which angered many of Russia's notoriously secretive oligarchs.

However, Vladimir Pronin, Moscow's police chief, said yesterday that two Chechens "who took part in the murder" had been arrested.

Mr Pronin disclosed that the two men had been arrested in the course of "a special operation" in the small hours of Tuesday. He said that preliminary ballistics tests showed that a pistol found at their home appeared to have been one of the weapons used to kill Mr Klebnikov.

The two men deny involvement, arguing that they acquired the gun from "a third party". Police say they arrested the men as part of an investigation into an unrelated case: the kidnap for ransom of two unnamed men.

Mr Pronin's claim that Mr Klebnikov was killed by Chechens gave credence to an obscure theory that the inves- tigative journalist, who was descended from White Russian émigrés, had signed his death warrant with the publication last year of a book entitled Conversation with a Barbarian. The book was based on interviews with Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, a Chechen field commander and former separatist deputy prime minister. Mr Klebnikov's take on Mr Nukhayev and on Chechen rebels in general was unflattering and the tone combative. "It was a pretty strongly worded anti-separatist, anti-Islamic book," Leonid Bershidsky, the Russian publisher of Forbes, said yesterday.

According to Russian media, Mr Nukhayev was a dangerous man to cross. With a criminal record dating to Soviet times, he was for much of the 1990s regarded as the head of various powerful Chechen criminal groups who controlled many lucrative Russian businesses.

Some analysts said yesterday, however, that they found the Chechen theory hard to believe, arguing that Mr Pronin's claim may be part of a campaign to discredit the Chechen people in the eyes of ordinary Russians who are reeling from a series of Chechnya-related terror attacks.

"I fear that here there could be some coincidence or even a campaign," Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, told Ekho Moskvy radio. "I think the law enforcement bodies are trying to milk the Chechen connection for all it's worth. I think it's unlikely that the Chechens were interested in attracting yet more attention to themselves."

Mr Bershidsky also sounded a sceptical note, saying that the magazine would need to study the details of the arrests and that the Chechen theory had not been the main one.

A Chechen, who declined to be identified, told The Independent yesterday: "These two men are just scapegoats. The police haven't got a clue so they have 'chosen' who is guilty."

Other theories about Mr Klebnikov's murder include his publication of a bookcritical of the UK-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, his disputed intention to investigate the murder of a Russian TV journalist, and his desire to look into Moscow's shady property boom.

Mr Klebnikov was the first Westerner to be assassinated in Russia since 1996.

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