The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) media-freedom representative says he is "deeply saddened and shocked" by the killing of three Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of a Russian paramilitary organization in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In a tweet on August 1, Harlem Desir offered his sympathies and condolences to the families and colleagues of Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko, who local authorities and the news organization they were reporting for said were ambushed and shot dead the previous day.
Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, condemned the killings "in the strongest terms" and urged "the CAR and Russian authorities to conduct a serious and thorough investigation."
Questions swirled along with grief and anger a day after the news of the deaths of the journalists, who were investigating a shadowy group that evidence indicates President Vladimir Putin's government has been using to fight battles abroad when it does not want to use the Russian military.
The online news organization Investigation Control Center (TsUR), funded by exiled Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said on Facebook on July 31 that the journalists were in the CAR to make a documentary film about ChVK Vagner, a private contractor employing hundreds of mercenaries that reportedly is funded by Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and has carried out clandestine combat missions in eastern Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Local and international media have reported that Vagner has been operating in the CAR since Russia delivered light arms to the country's security forces this year and deployed hundreds of military and civilian instructors to train them. Russian authorities have denied that the Vagner contractors are carrying out their orders.
Russian investigators said they have opened a criminal case to look into the deaths of the journalists. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on August 1 that the stated purpose of their visit to the CAR was tourism, seeming to take them to task for allegedly misstating the intent of the trip.
That remark drew rare criticism of the ministry from a senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, wrote on Telegram that issues such as the purpose of the trip were "not very important now."
"What is important is that Russian citizens have been killed," he wrote. "Here we should follow the example of our 'strategic friends' from across the ocean: the United States does not leave the death of any of its citizens without consequences. No matter what country they were in and what political views they adhered to."
Henri Depele, the mayor of the town of Sibut, around 200 kilometers northeast of the capital, Bangui, said the journalists were killed late on July 30. Their driver survived the attack.
"According to the driver's explanations, when they were 23 kilometers from Sibut...armed men emerged from the bush and opened fire on the vehicle. The three journalists died instantly," Depele told Reuters.
A CAR government spokesman gave a somewhat different account on August 1, saying that the journalists had encountered about a dozen "turbaned gunmen" after being stoppped at a checkpoint and venturing further despite being advised against it.
"When they resisted the theft of their vehicle, they were shot dead, while their driver was injured" but was able to flee, German news agency dpa quoted the spokesman, Ange Maxime Kazagui, as saying.
Other media reports quoted Kazagui as saying the assailants spoke Arabic rather than French or Sango, the national language of the country in which Muslims make up about 15 percent of the population of 5.6 million.
CAR has been plagued by violence, often fought along religious lines between predominantly Christian and Muslim militias, since a 2013 rebellion overthrew then-President Francois Bozize.
Most of the country is beyond the control of the Bangui government, and a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission has struggled to keep a lid on the violence.
TsUR's statement said the journalists flew to CAR on July 27 and that its last contact with them was late on July 29.
Anastasia Gorshkova, deputy editor of the media outlet, told the Russian news network Dozhd that the journalists had tried to enter an estate where members of the security company reportedly stayed, but they were told that they needed accreditation from the CAR Defense Ministry.
On July 30, the journalists planned to meet with a local contact in the town of Bambari, 380 kilometers from Bangui, Gorshkova said. The road to Bambari runs through Sibut.
TsUR is financed by Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who spent 10 years in prison following convictions in financial crimes trials supporters contend were a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to seize his company's production assets and punish him for challenges to President Vladimir Putin.
He was pardoned by Putin, released, and flown out of Russia in 2010. He now lives in Europe.
TsUR has published a number of investigations alleging corruption by senior members of Putin's entourage.
Khodorkovsky called the three journalists who were killed "brave men who were not prepared simply to collect documentary material, but wanted to 'feel' it in the palms of their hands.... Rest in peace."
Dzhemal, 51, was a respected Russian military correspondent who covered conflicts around the world. He was seriously injured in Libya in 2011 and published a book in 2008 giving a firsthand account of the five-day Russia-Georgia war.
Rastorguyev, 47, was a prominent documentary filmmaker and a contributor to RFE/RL. He was among the three directors of an award-winning 2013 film about leaders of the Russian opposition.
Radchenko, 33, started his career as a projectionist and had become a cameraman in recent years.
With reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP, and The New York Times