KIEV, Ukraine (AFP) — Ukraine admitted Wednesday it had staged the murder of anti-Kremlin journalist Arkady Babchenko in order to foil an attempt on his life by Russia, a stunning development in a case that had attracted global headlines.
Shortly afterwards Kiev announced it had arrested a man suspected of preparing to kill the journalist.
Less than 24 hours after it was reported that Babchenko had died from three gunshots to the back in the stairwell of his apartment building in an apparent contract-style killing, he appeared alive and well at a press conference in Kiev.
The head of Ukraine’s security service Vasyl Grytsak told reporters that his death was faked as part of a “special operation” to preempt a real plot to kill him.
“Thanks to this operation we were able to foil a cynical plot and document how the Russian security service was planning for this crime,” Grytsak added.
Reporters Without Borders condemned the staging of a Babchenko’s murder as a “pathetic stunt.”
Christophe Deloire, the head of the Paris-based media watchdog, told AFP that while he was relieved that Babchenko was still alive, “it is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive… for the stunt.”
News of the “death” of the prominent Russian war correspondent and former soldier set off a series of recriminations between Kiev and Moscow, and pictures and flowers had been laid by mourners at the Russian embassy in Kiev.
Ukrainian officials led by Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman had accused Russia of being behind the killing of the Kremlin critic, a charge that Moscow batted back.
“The Ukrainian prime minister is already talking about how it was done by Russian secret services,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters. “This fashion of conducting international affairs is very sad.”
String of killings
A number of Kremlin critics have been killed in Ukraine in recent years, with one gunned down on a Kiev street in broad daylight and another whose car exploded.
Babchenko, 41, fought in Russia’s two Chechen campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s before becoming a war correspondent and author. He repeatedly said he faced death threats.
He has contributed to a number of media outlets including top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and is an avid blogger, accusing Russian authorities of killing Kremlin critics and unleashing wars in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
He wrote about his experience as a young soldier in the Chechen campaigns in a book published in English under the title “One Soldier’s War.”
Babchenko left Russia in February 2017 after receiving threats, living first in the Czech Republic, then in Israel, before moving to Kiev.
He has hosted a program on the Crimean Tatar TV station ATR for the past year.
Babchenko made a name for himself with his poignant reportages from the frontlines, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people.
In recent years his increasingly bombastic posts pushed the boundaries of good taste and some of his colleagues and followers stopped reading him on Facebook.