Three Russian journalists investigating the activities of a Russian paramilitary organization in the Central African Republic were ambushed and killed, their news outlet and local authorities said on July 31.
The Russian online news organization Investigation Control Center (TsUR) said in a Facebook post that the three journalists -- identified as Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko -- were in the country to make a documentary film about ChVK Vagner, a private contractor employing hundreds of mercenaries which has reportedly carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin's behalf in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Local and international media have reported that Vagner has been operating in the Central African Republic 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.
The group’s relationship with the Kremlin is murky and unconfirmed, but the New York Times reported that its leaders have received awards from the Kremlin, and its mercenaries were trained at the Russian Defense Ministry’s facilities.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on July 31 confirmed that three people with identification documents belonging to Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko were found dead and their bodies were brought back to the capital Bangui.
Russian investigators said they have opened a criminal case to look into the deaths.
Henri Depele, the mayor of the town of Sibut, around 200 kilometers northeast of the capital Bangui, said the journalists were killed late on July 30. Their driver survived the attack.
"According to the driver's explanations, when they were 23 kilometers from Sibut...armed men emerged from the bush and opened fire on the vehicle. The three journalists died instantly," he told Reuters.
TsUR's statement said the journalists flew into the violence-ridden African country on July 27 and that its last contact with them was late on July 29.
Anastasia Gorshkova, deputy editor of the media outlet, told the Russian Dozhd news network that the journalists had tried to enter an estate where members of the security company reportedly stayed, but they were told that they needed accreditation from the country’s Defense Ministry.
On July 30, the journalists planned to meet with a local contact in the town of Bambari, 235 miles away from the country’s capital, Bangui, Gorshkova said. The road to Bambari runs through Sibut.
The investigative media outlet the journalists worked for is financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oil tycoon who was jailed on corruption charges and now lives in exile outside Russia.
Khodorkovsky is one of the most vehement critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
TsUR has published a number of investigations alleging corruption by senior members of Putin's entourage.
Khodorkovsky called the three distinguished journalists who were killed "brave men who were not prepared simply to collect documentary material, but wanted to 'feel' it in the palms of their hands... Rest in peace."
Dzhemal, 51, was a leading Russian military correspondent. He covered conflicts across the world and was seriously injured in Libya in 2011. In 2008, he published a book, a firsthand account of the five-day Russia-Georgia war.
Rastorguev, 47, was one of the most prominent Russian documentary filmmakers of his generation. In 2013, he was among the three directors of an award-winning film about leaders of the Russian opposition.
Radchenko, 33, started his career as a projectionist, but had become a cameraman in recent years. In March, he served as an election observer in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
The Central African Republic has been riddled by violence, often fought along religious lines between predominantly Christian and Muslim militia, since a 2013 rebellion overthrew then-President Francois Bozize.
Most of the country is beyond the control of the Bangui government, and a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission has struggled to keep a lid on the violence.