Ukrainian security service says journalist faked his death to uncover a real plot to kill him
'Dead' anti-Kremlin journalist Arkady Babchenko appears at news conference
A Russian anti-Kremlin journalist who was reported killed in Kiev on Tuesday, appeared alive and well at a press conference in Ukraine.
Ukrainian police had said that Arkady Babchenko, a strong critic of the Kremlin, was shot multiple times in the back Tuesday and found bleeding there by his wife. Authorities said they suspected he was killed because of his work.
Mr Babchenko took the floor at the press conference and apologised to the friends and family who mourned for him and were unaware of the plan.
"I'm still alive. I know that sickening feeling when you bury a colleague," he said, apologising.
The head of Ukraine's security service Vasyl Grytsak told reporters that the journalist's faked death was part of a "special operation" to pre-empt a real plot to kill him.
Neither he nor Grytsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, provided details of how they staged Babchenko's injuries or made his wife believe he was dead.
He said a Ukrainian citizen had been recruited by the Russian security service and paid $40,000 to organise the murder of the journalist. He had hired an associate who fought in eastern Ukraine on the side of Russian separatists to be the gunman.
Mr Babchenko, a critic of President Vladimir Putin and veteran war correspondent, lived in exile in Kiev.
He fled Russia after he received threats for saying he did not mourn the victims of a Russian defence ministry plane crash in a 2016 Facebook post.
His wife reportedly found him outside of their apartment block with gunshots to his back. He apologised to her at the press conference.
"I would like to apologize to my wife for the hell she went through in those two days. Olechka, I'm sorry, but there were no options here either. Then I would very much like to thank the Security Service of Ukraine for saving my life,” he said.
The journalist said he was not allowed to go into the details of the sting operation, but said Ukrainian law enforcement had been aware of a contract on his head for two months. He said he was approached by the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, a month ago.
"The important thing is my life has been saved and other, bigger terrorist attacks have been thwarted," he said.
After his staged death, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said in a social media posting late on Tuesday he was convinced that what he called "the Russian totalitarian machine" had not forgiven Babchenko for what the Ukrainian leader called his honesty.
"The killers should be punished," he wrote. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released a sketch of a suspect wearing a cap and showing a beard, aged around 40 to 45-years-old.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine’s accusations were “very sad” as an investigation into the incident had yet to begin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described allegations by Ukrainian government officials that Moscow was behind the murder as “the height of cynicism” and said he hoped other countries would lean on Kiev to do more to protect journalists.
But the trading of words appeared to be in vain. The Ukrainian government treated Mr Babchenko's death as real following the staged incident.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said he was "relieved to learn that Babchenko' s murder was staged by Ukrainian police and that he is alive".
The 41-year-old journalist had spoken publicly about the threats against his life and the fear that drove him to leave Russia.
“Like many dissidents I am used to abuse, but a recent campaign against me was so personal, so scary, that I was forced to flee,” he wrote for British newspaper The Guardian in February 2017.
Kiev has become a bolthole for Russian dissidents, but they have still been able to be targeted in the Ukrainian capital. Last year, Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov was shot and killed outside a hotel in Kiev. He had fled to the country as he feared for his life in Russia.
Mr Babchenko, if targeted, would have been one more in a long line of Russian journalists targeted for their work.
In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, who chronicled the killings and torture of civilians by the Russian military, was shot dead in her apartment.
Two years later, Mikhail Beketov suffered brain damage and lost a leg after a brutal assault in 2008 following his reporting and campaign against a highway project against Moscow. He died five years later. Anastasia Baburova, Khadzhimurad Kamalov were both killed in central Moscow and Makhachkala, the capital of the Dagestan region, respectively in the years after.