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Russia shocked by mysterious murder of three journalists in CAR

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The three men had been on assignment, investigating reports of Russian mercenaries fighting in Central African Republic, when their vehicle came under attack and they were shot dead.

News of the ambush has led to tributes to the trio, but many questions remain about the circumstances behind their deaths, as Elizaveta Fokht and Sergey Goryashko explain.

What happened?

Renowned war correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were attacked at 19:00 on Monday as they travelled from the CAR capital Bangui to the town of Sibut, some 180km (112 miles) north, local officials say.

They had been travelling at night despite warnings that it was not safe.

Their mission was to look into reports that fighters from a Russian private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group, were operating there.

Wagner PMC has hit the headlines before for its activities in Syria. More recent reports have emerged that the group may have also deployed to CAR.

Russian officials and the Kremlin deny any ties with the fighters. However, Russia did send 180 trainers to Bangui in February, after receiving UN approval to train and arm the CAR military.

Image copyrightTV RAIN
Image captionOrkhan Dzhemal was described by a BBC reporter who knew him as “totally unperturbed” while filing in the heat of battle

Dzhemal, Rastorguyev and Radchenko had been sent to CAR by the Investigation Control Center (ICC), an investigative journalism project sponsored by exiled former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. All three were employed on a freelance basis.

According to the ICC, the journalists had already visited the Berengo military base outside the capital where the CAR military is being trained by Russian instructors.

Their next destination was the central town of Bambari, where they had arranged a meeting with a UN worker, the ICC says. “He was going to provide information about the situation with Russian military trainers in CAR and he was going to help with the filming of gold mines at Ndassima.”

Russia said this year it was interested in developing CAR’s natural resources.

The three were ambushed by men, all wearing turbans and speaking Arabic, according to Marcelin Yoyo from the Sibut local administration.

A government spokesman said that nine men in headscarves had stopped the journalists at a roadblock. They had then been shot and one had died on the spot while the others died later of their wounds.

Their driver somehow managed to escape and raise the alarm.

Three talented journalists

Image copyrightFACEBOOK/TV RAIN
Image captionFrom L-R: Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal
  • Kirill Radchenko, 33, was a promising cameraman who had worked in Chechnya and more recently in Syria with the Anna news agency
  • Alexander Rastorguyev, 47, was well known for his work documenting the conflict in eastern Ukraine and particularly for his internet documentaries on Russia’s opposition protests in 2011-12
  • Orkhan Dzhemal, 51, had covered conflicts in Libya, Syria, eastern Ukraine and South Ossetia, working for Novaya Gazeta, Izvestia, Kommersant and TV channel Dozhd. Known as a fearless and calm war correspondent, colleagues remember him filing a report from a cemetery during the height of a battle in Ukraine

Timeline: Central African Republic

Who was behind the attack?

Neither the reason for the attack nor the identity of the killers is clear.

Robbery could have been a motive, according to Interfax news agency.

Colleagues of the three say expensive camera kit and more than $8,000 (£6,100; €6,850) in cash disappeared from the scene.

Russian state-owned news agency Tass speculated that the Seleka, a local mainly Muslim armed group, might have been involved. CAR has been unstable since the Seleka overthrew the then president in 2013 and a band of largely Christian militias rose up against the rebels.

A UN peacekeeping mission of 13,000 is struggling to maintain order there.

But why were the journalists not travelling with security guards?

The killing of journalists in the CAR is rare, but not unknown. French photojournalist Camille Lepage died when she was caught up in fighting in 2014.

ICC deputy editor Anastasia Gorshkova explained that they had faced big logistical challenges deploying to the CAR.

Image copyrightAFP
Image captionCamille Lepage, who died in 2014, was a well-regarded photojournalist

It had taken weeks to find a Russian-speaking interpreter and finding any security advisers had proved impossible, she said.

The team, all experienced war reporters, had therefore decided to go it alone.

How did the driver survive?

Questions have been raised about the team’s driver, who escaped the attack in circumstances that are yet to be fully explained.

Anastasia Gorshkova told the BBC that, in the days before the attack, ICC editors in Moscow had raised concerns about the man after it emerged the group had been stopped by the police close to their hotel and forced to pay a bribe.

Media captionWhy is Russia helping the Central African Republic?

The driver had apparently acted as go-between, translating for the police and negotiating payment.

However, Kirill Radchenko had assured his editors that the driver was not working for the police and there was no cause for alarm, the editor said.

What is Russia doing in CAR?

The Central African Republic does not have functional armed forces and the state of security is dire. UN peacekeepers are overstretched and rebel groups control large parts of the country.

There have been attempts to revive the military, and this is where Russia enters the scene.

In December 2017, Moscow persuaded the UN Security Council to allow an exemption from a small arms ban to the CAR army. It sent specialists to train the forces and some security agents to be part of President Faustin Touadera’s presidential guard.

Is Wagner PMC involved? Observers think so. Russia has also signed deals with the CAR for mineral extraction and has talked to rebel groups in some mining areas. It is not clear whether Wagner mercenaries are involved in these other activities.

Additional reporting by Tomi Oladipo, BBC Monitoring’s Africa security correspondent

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