A Russian journalist who police said had been killed in Kiev yesterday appears to have shown up alive at a news conference in Ukraine.
Arkady Babchenko, 41, was widely reported to have died on the way to hospital after his wife found him bleeding outside their apartment.
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Press Gazette also reported the story, which was covered by PA.
Police said the Kremlin critic had died of multiple gunshots wounds to his back, with Kiev’s police chief claiming Babchencko’s “professional activities” as a journalist were a factor in his apparent murder.
However, it now appears this was a plot by Ukranian security services to capture hitmen hired to kill Babchenko (pictured, right), who now seems to have appeared at a news conference this afternoon to prove he is alive.
Vasily Gritsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, told reporters that the agency faked Babchenko’s death as part of the elaborate bluff.
Gritsak said investigators had identified a Ukrainian man who had been recruited and paid $40,000 (£30,000) by Russian security services to organise and carry out the killing. He in turn had hired a gunman.
Babchenko surprised reporters at the press conference, and worldwide, when he walked in to the room after Gritsak announced the security service had solved his murder.
The journalist said: “I’m still alive,” then apologised to his family, including his wife, who apparently had been unaware of the plan.
According to a translation from BBC Monitoring, Babchenko said: “I would like to apologise for what all of you had to experience, that you had to get through.
“I have buried friends and colleagues and I know the sickening feeling. I am sorry you had to experience it. But there was no other way.
“I would like to apologise separately to my wife for the hell she had to experience in these two days. Olechka, I am terribly sorry, but there were no other options.
“Also, I would like to express big thanks to the Security Service of Ukraine for saving my life.”
A video on social media shows Babchenko’s newsroom colleagues cheering and applauding as he suddenly appears on the TV screen.
Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian MP who serves as an adviser to the interior minister, said on Facebook: “As a result of the brilliant special operation conducted by Ukrainian law enforcers, the killer who was ordered to kill Arkady and the organiser of the murder was detained.
“In order to better document the customers and organisers of the crime – the representatives of the Russian special services – they had to be assured that the hired killer had successfully completed the order.”
Gerashchenko said this explained why so few people, not even Babchenko’s wife, knew he was still alive.
He added: “To create a picture of full reality, statements were made by the official representatives of the National Police about the death of Arkady.
“Law enforcers could not fail to understand that the news of the murder of Arkady Babchenko would be a pain in thousands of hearts around the world. But they had no other choice.”
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement it was happy Babchenko was alive and that the staged murder had a “propagandistic effect”, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
But some journalists were critical of the plot and its implications for media professionals who may face death threats in the future.
Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News international editor, tweeted: “So now every time a journalist is murdered, those responsible will unleash their bots and propagandists to say it’s fake news.
“Thanks, Ukranian security services. That’s really helpful to all who care about journalists’ safety.”
Leonid Ragozin, a former BBC and Russian Newsweek journalist, tweeted: “Babchenko’s death turns out to be fake news of the century.
“A mindless and tragic mistreatment of public empathy that discredits so many things at once – Ukraine, Russian liberals, journalists. Only Kremlin wins.”
Sun journalist John Lucas added: “This will be a massive propaganda boost for Putin and his supporters and doesn’t do much to help journos also facing threats.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists revealed it is investigating the “unprecedented” situation as it said: “We are relieved that Arkady Babchenko is alive. Ukrainian authorities must disclose what necessitated the extreme measure of staging news of the Russian journalist’s murder.”
News of Babchenko’s death had prompted statements from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York calling for a police probe into the apparent murder.
Babchenko’s work is critical of the Kremlin’s policies, assailing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its support for separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine and the Russian campaign in Syria.
In a statement after news of Babchenko’s apparent death, Russian lawmaker Yevgeny Revenko told state-owned RIA Novosti news agency: “Ukraine is becoming the most dangerous country for reporters.”
Its not clear whether Russia was involved in the plot to trick Babchenko’s enemies.
Babchenko served in the Russian army and fought during the first separatist war in Chechnya during the 1990s.
He later became a journalist and worked as a military correspondent for several Russian media outlets. He also published several books based on his wartime experiences.
Some of his articles and posts outraged many Russians.
In one, he said he felt no regret about the deaths of Russian army choir members and others from a December 2016 plane crash as they were heading to perform before Russian troops in Syria. Some even called for stripping Babchenko of his Russian citizenship.
Babchenko left Russia in February 2017, saying he was receiving threats and was concerned he might be jailed.
He moved to Kiev last autumn, where he worked as a host for the Crimean Tatar TV station ATR.
Russia is ranked 148 out of 180 counties on the World Press Freedom Index 2018, compiled by press freedom campaign group Reporters Without Borders. Ukraine is planed 101.
Picture: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko