By DMYTRO VLASOV and NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A Russian journalist who was reportedly gunned down in Ukraine’s capital strolled into a news conference that authorities called Wednesday to discuss the investigation of his death, revealing that the slaying had been staged to foil an alleged Kremlin hit plot.
“I’m still alive,” Arkady Babchenko, 41, told startled fellow reporters at the news conference held less than 24 hours after police reported he had been shot and killed at his Kiev apartment building.
Ukrainian police said Tuesday that 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.
Babchenko apologized to his wife, who he said was not briefed on the scheme in advance, “for the hell she had to go through in the past two days. There was no choice there, either.”
Neither he nor Vasyl Gritsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, provided details of how they staged Babchenko’s injuries or made his wife believe he was dead.
The movie-like twist came as Gritsak convened the news conference to announce that the security agency and the police had solved Babchenko’s reported slaying. He then confused everyone there by inviting the supposed slaying into the room.
To applause and gasps, Babchenko took the floor and apologized to the friends and family who mourned for him and were unaware of the plan.
“I’m still alive,” he said. “I know that sickening feeling when you bury a colleague. I’m sorry you had to go through this but there was no other way.”
Before ushering Babchenko into the room, Gritsak said investigators had identified a Ukrainian citizen who allegedly was paid $40,000 by the Russian security service to organize and carry out the hit. The unidentified Ukrainian man in turn allegedly hired an acquaintance to be the gunman, Gritsak said.
The man allegedly paid to organize Banchenko’s killing was detained Wednesday, he said, showing a video of the arrest.
Gritsak said killing Babchenko was part of a larger alleged plot by Russian security services. The Ukrainian man was also supposed to procure large quantities of weapons and explosives, including 300 AK-47 rifles and “hundreds of kilos of explosives,” to perpetrate acts of terror in Ukraine, he said.
Babchenko 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.
Babchenko, one of Russia’s best-known war reporters, fled the country in February 2017 after receiving death threats. He spoke and wrote about leaving the country because of the threats against him and his family. He said his home address was published online and the threats he received were made by phone, email and social media.
Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker who also moved to Ukraine, said Babchenko continued being threatened after he settled last fall in Kiev, where he worked as a host for the Crimean Tatar TV station. Babchenko did not take the intimidation too seriously, Ponomarev said Wednesday before the fact that the slaying was staged came out.
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine were topics on which the journalist was scathingly critical of the Kremlin.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko lashed out Wednesday at Ukrainian politicians and civil groups who accused the government following Babchenko’s faked assassination of allowing contract killings to happen.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Ayse Wieting in Istanbul and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.