BANGUI, Central African Republic
Three Russian journalists confirmed dead in the Central African Republic this week were investigating a Russian private military company with links to the Kremlin, confirmed the Russian foreign ministry and their editors.
The Investigations Management Centre (IMC) said on its website that the team of reporters, led by the veteran war correspondent Orkhan Djemal, had been researching the actions of the Russian military firm Wagner, which has also been active in Syria and Ukraine.
The three Russian journalists flew into the war-torn country on last Friday and had been in contact until Sunday evening, the centre said.
Media reports said that the men may have been ambushed and killed Monday evening near the village of Sibut, about 185 miles (300km) north of the CAR’s capital, Bangui.
“It’s impossible to believe this, but there is already no hope that this is a mistake,” the statement from the IMC read.
Earlier the men had been refused entry to a military base they believed run by Wagner because they lacked proper accreditation, Anastasia Gorshkova, deputy editor at the IMC, told the Russian television station TV Rain.
Russia was authorised by the UN last December to provide government armed forces with weapons and training.
Some Russian media have reported that Wagner, a shadowy private military company tied to a wealthy restaurateur turned government contractor named Yevgeny Prigozhin, was active in the country.
The IMC was also concerned that the journalists driver or fixer could have been in league with police, seeking bribes from them. The journalists were carrying thousands of dollars in cash and cameras when they were killed, Gorshkova said.
Some media reports said the journalists had been ambushed by 10 Arabic-speaking men.
The three Russians were accomplished journalists who had worked with independent or opposition media organisations. Djemal was the former political editor of Novaya Gazeta and had covered conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. He was known by colleagues for his aggressive, often fearless, conduct as a war correspondent. Djemal had been imprisoned in Somalia and wounded in Libya.
Alexander Rastorguev was a director best known for his documentary Srok (The Term) about Russia’s anti-Putin opposition. Kirill Radchenko was an accomplished photographer who had also served as an elections monitor in Chechnya during presidential elections, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The IMC is backed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who was imprisoned for a decade under Vladimir Putin for financial crimes seen as having political motivation.
Russian state media have largely avoided reporting on what the journalists were researching, since the Kremlin has publicly denied any link to Wagner or even acknowledged the existence of the private military company. Russia’s foreign ministry said the men had entered the country as tourists.
Wagner is best known for its work in Syria. Leaked contracts suggest that the company received oil concessions from the Assad regime in return for providing protection for certain strategic facilities. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries, some tied to Wagner, were said to have been killed in a clash with US forces in February.
Private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, but Wagner’s commander, Dmitry Utkin, has been seen in close proximity to the Kremlin. He was photographed during a Kremlin reception where he was awarded a medal for bravery. Utkin is also said to have a fraught relationship with the Russian military, which is reported to be backing rival private military companies.
Russia is one of the world’s more dangerous countries for journalists. At least 58 journalists have died violent deaths in the country since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.