A United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) is helping national authorities investigate the killing of three Russian journalists who were there to film a documentary on a Russian paramilitary group, a UN spokesman has said.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York on August 1 that UN peacekeepers were the ones who found an abandoned vehicle and the bullet-riddled bodies of Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko.
"The bodies were transferred to a UN hospital in Sibut, and were then transferred to a local hospital in Bangui by national authorities. The circumstances of the incident have not yet been established," Haq said, adding that UN police traveled to Sibut to aid in the investigation on August 1.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on August 2 said the bodies of the men had signs of gunshot wounds but that the injuries did not suggest they had been tortured. She said assistance was being provided to the slain journalists’ families.
Russia's state-run TASS news agency quoted Charge D'affaires Viktor Tokmakov as saying the return of the bodies to Russia could be delayed due to various problems, including finding “zinc coffins of necessary sizes.”
The Russian Investigative Committee, meanwhile, said it had launched a criminal investigation into the killings.
CAR has been ravaged by violence since a 2013 rebellion overthrew then-President Francois Bozize.
The killings took place north of the central town of Sibut, which is located on the main highway to the capital, Bangui.
Major Seraphin Embondza, a military spokesman for the UN mission, told a news conference in Bangui, "I don't recall ever hearing anything about an incident of this nature on the road in question."
Questions have swirled about who was behind the deaths of the journalists late on July 30. They 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 that is reportedly 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 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 anywhere in the world.
Varying versions of the circumstances surrounding the journalists' deaths have emerged.
CAR's government said on August 1 that the journalists were shot dead at a roadblock by a group of about 10 men who wore turbans and did not speak languages commonly used in CAR.
In a statement on national television, government spokesman Ange Maxime Kazagui said it was "very plausible" that the three journalists had been killed by "a roadblock team who belong to an armed group."
"They took risks that, in my view, were badly underestimated," he said.
Roadblocks are a notorious form of revenue-raising for the militia groups that control most of CAR.
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.
"This was done in a very demonstrative fashion," he told AP, saying he wondered why the attackers didn't bother to cover their tracks and left the journalists' driver alive.
"If they could have just taken everything from them, why kill them?" Konyakhin asked.
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.