The bodies of three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) have arrived in Moscow after being transported on an Air France flight from Paris.
The FlightAware website reported that the plane landed on August 5 shortly after midnight at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The Air France jet had earlier evactuated the bodies from Bangui in the African country.
Maksim Shevchenko, a friend of one of the victims, told state-run TASS news agency that the bodies were being taken to a mortuary and would be examined by investigators before being returned to the families.
He added that they had been told the Russian Investigative Committee would require at least two days for the examinations.
A United Nations peacekeeping mission in the CAR is helping national authorities there investigate the killing of the journalists, who were filming a documentary on a Russian paramilitary group.
The peacekeepers were the ones who found an abandoned vehicle and the bullet-riddled bodies of Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko. The killings took place late on July 30 north of the central town of Sibut on the main highway to the capital, Bangui.
The CAR has been ravaged by violence since a 2013 rebellion overthrew then-President Francois Bozize. But the UN mission in CAR said the zone where the men were ambushed is patrolled by armed forces in collaboration with the mission and has not been the site of serious incidents recently.
Questions have swirled about who was behind the deaths of the journalists, who were investigating a shadowy Russian paramilitary 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 CAR to make a documentary film about ChVK Vagner, a private contractor employing hundreds of mercenaries reportedly funded by Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin that has carried out clandestine combat missions in eastern Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Local and international media have reported that Vagner has been operating in 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 orders on their behalf anywhere in the world.
Andrei Konyakhin, the chief editor of TsUR, said the journalists were carrying several thousand dollars in cash as well as valuable equipment, but he said he was skeptical the slayings resulted from a mere robbery. He said he thinks the attack could be linked to their investigation.
CAR has been plagued by violence, often fought along religious lines between predominantly Christian and Muslim militias, since a 2013 rebellion overthrew Bozize.
Most of the country is beyond the control of the Bangui government, and the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission has struggled to keep a lid on the violence.