Former Russian lawmaker shot dead in Ukraine

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A former Russian lawmaker who became a vociferous critic of Moscow following his recent move to Ukraine was shot and killed in Kiev Thursday, prompting another war of words between the two countries.

Denis Voronenkov, who testified to Ukrainian investigators and criticized Russian policies after his move to Kiev last fall, was shot dead by an unidentified gunman near the entrance of an upscale hotel in the Ukrainian capital.

During the attack, Voronenkov’s bodyguard, who fired back, was wounded. Both were hospitalized but Ukrainian officials said the gunman, who they claimed was a Ukrainian citizen, later died from wounds in his chest and head.

Footage following the exchange of gunfire showed the three men lying on the sidewalk. Voronenkov’s bodyguard, a Ukrainian security services officer, was seen rolling on the ground and then being helped to an ambulance by paramedics.

The killing prompted an angry exchange between the two countries whose relations have soured badly in recent years following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Voronenkov’s killing was an “act of state terrorism” that “clearly shows the handwriting of Russian special services shown repeatedly in various European capitals in the past.”

In a statement released by his spokesman, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, Poroshenko described the victim as a key witness who gave testimony about “Russian aggression” to the Ukrainian authorities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed the claim as “absurd” in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova went further, saying the “killer regime” in Kiev “will do its best to make sure that no one will ever know the truth about what happened.”

Several hours after Voronenkov was killed, a team of investigators and police were seen working at the front door of the Premier Palace hotel, which is frequented by Kiev’s rich and powerful. The patch of the pavement by the door where he died was wet from water utility workers had used to wash away bloodstains.

Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, said Voronenkov was killed shortly before a meeting with another fugitive Russian lawmaker, Ilya Ponomaryov. Both men were scheduled to give testimony later in the day at Ukraine’s Military Prosecutor’s Office. The purpose of the testimony was not immediately clear.

Poroshenko said it wasn’t accidental that Voronenkov’s killing came on the same day as a fire that erupted at a Ukrainian military arsenal in the Kharkiv region, which Ukrainian officials say was caused by sabotage.

Voronenkov, 45, a former member of the communist faction in the lower house of Russian parliament who had obediently toed the Kremlin line, moved to Ukraine with his wife, singer and fellow lawmaker Maria Maksakova.

Voronenkov, who had reportedly told journalists he feared for his life and was said to be under the protection of the Ukrainian security services, claimed he had to leave Russia because of persecution by Russian security agencies. He had been granted Ukrainian citizenship after renouncing his Russian status.

He has testified to Ukrainian investigators as part of their probe into the activities of the nation’s former Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by popular protests in February 2014.

After his move to Ukraine, Russian investigators filed fraud charges against Voronenkov in connection with his business activities. A Moscow court earlier this month sanctioned his arrest in absentia.

Prosecutor Lutsenko said investigators were looking into Voronenkov’s role in exposing a contraband ring in Russia which cost several senior security officers their jobs, and his testimony on Yanukovych, as possible motives for his killing.

Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst in Kiev, said Voronenkov’s testimony was important to Ukraine because of his level of access in Russia. “He was a member of the parliamentary committee on national security,” said Fesenko, and he had access to “state secrets.”

Russia’s Peskov said Putin had been informed about the killing and voiced hope the Ukrainian authorities would solve the crime. He added that Voronenkov’s widow was welcome to return to Russia.

Evacuations

Around 20,000 people were evacuated Thursday in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region near the border with Russia after a massive fire at a military arsenal.

The fire at the depot in Balaklia, which holds large-caliber artillery rounds and is one of Ukraine’s largest, erupted early Thursday, prompting the evacuation and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman to fly to the area to monitor the blaze, which is still raging. An area the size of 40 kilometers (25 miles) around the depot has been closed for flights.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said at a briefing that the fire had likely been staged by Russian or separatist saboteurs who probably used a drone. Poltorak said there was no immediate word on casualties.

The separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk have rejected Poltorak’s accusations, arguing in statements carried by the Interfax news agency that the blaze was likely rooted in corruption and incompetence among the Ukrainian military.

There was a fire at the same arsenal in 2015 but the military managed to quickly put it out before munitions started detonating. The huge depot held about 138,000 metric ton of ordnance.

Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor, Anatolii Matios, also said on Facebook that the blaze was sparked by an act of sabotage and dismissed charges that the fire was an attempt to cover up ammunition theft from the depots, saying it had been protected by nearly 1,000 guards.

The Kharkiv region lies just north of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russia-backed separatists. The conflict has killed more than 9,800 since April 2014.

Ukraine’s defense ministry said controls on the border with Russia have been tightened.