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Key Witness Found Dead In Ukraine

Yuriy Kravchenko Prague, 4 March 2005 -- Former Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko was found dead in his home today just hours before he was scheduled to be questioned about the killing of an investigative journalist.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, Inna Kisel, said today the death appeared to be suicide but that a forensic investigation is under way.

The death comes two days after Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said investigators had identified four people involved in the death of Georgian-Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was kidnapped and slain in late 2000.

Two of the suspected killers were employed by the Interior Ministry, which at the time was headed by Kravchenko. Kravchenko served as Interior Minister from 1995 to 2001 (Kravchenko's Profile).

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was quoted today as saying he believed the Gongadze investigation may have played some role in Kravchenko's death.

Gongadze, whose reports were strongly antigovernment, was abducted in Kyiv in September 2000. His decapitated body was found later buried in a forest outside the capital.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he believes the Gongadze investigation may have played some role in Kravchenko's death.

The death sparked months of protests against then-President Leonid Kuchma, who the opposition alleged was involved in the killing.

Those allegations were given new life when a former bodyguard for Kuchma -- Mykola Melnychenko - said he had made secret recordings of conversations in Kuchma's office that appeared to link Kuchma to Gongadze's death. Some of the tapes involved alleged conversations with Kravchenko.

In one of the tapes, a voice believed to be Kuchma's was overheard purportedly ordering Kravchenko to take measures against the journalist. In response, a man believed to be Kravchenko said he will do whatever it is that Kuchma wants.

Kuchma: "That Georgian..." [Ed. Gongadze is an ethnic Georgian-Ukrainian]

Kravchenko: "Well, I ... we are working. So...."

Kuchma: "I'm saying to get him out, throw him out, give him to the Chechens (unintelligible)."

Kravchenko: "We'll think it over. We will do so that...."

Kuchma: "To drive him out, undress him, leave him with no pants on, leave him sitting like that."

Kravchenko: "I would do [it] simply. They reported to me today. We are examining the situation, where he goes, how he goes. We'll examine it a little more, we'll do [it]. I have a real crack team right now, real aces, they'll do whatever you want."

Kuchma has denied any connection with Gongadze's killings and no conclusive link has yet been presented.

The authenticity of the tapes has never been completely proven, though investigators in the United States and other countries say they appear to be genuine.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Piskun announced recently that he intends to conduct another investigation into the tapes' authenticity. He has asked Melnychenko to return to Ukraine and be present during this examination.

Kravchenko's death complicates the investigation and raises many new questions in the rapidly unfolding Gongadze case.

"As concerns the investigation, it will be more difficult to investigate the role of former higher state officials [in the killing]," said Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Policy, a Kyiv-based research center. "Without Kravchenko it will be more difficult to prove or dismiss the role of [Leonid] Kuchma."

He said Kravchenko's death also exposes what he calls the "complete incompetence" of Prosecutor-General Piskun. He said it was Piskun's responsibility to ensure Kravchenko's safety as the main witness in the Gongadze case.

Piskun on 2 March said investigators had identified all four people involved in Gongadze's slaying and knew who was the mastermind. He did not name names, but according to the Interfax news agency the suspects are cooperating in the investigation.

Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a member of the parliament's commission investigating the murder of Gongadze, told the media on 3 March that Kravchenko was under extreme pressure and that Omelchenko was fearful that Kravchenko might take his own life.

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and RFE/RL regional analyst Roman Kupchinsky contributed to this report)