Russia says journalists hired by Putin critic likely killed during a robbery

Three Russian TV journalists killed in volatile Central African Republic spoke no French, had trouble communicating with their driver, and had inconsistent contact with their local fixer, according to two people who were in touch with the journalists.

3 Russians working on project for anti-Kremlin campaigner Mikhail Khodorkovsky were killed July 30

Flowers are placed by portraits of slain journalists Alexander Rastorguyev, Kirill Radchenko and Orkhan Dzhemal at the Russian journalists union building in Moscow. The trio had been working on an investigation into Russian private military contractors and the mining industries in Central African Republic. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Three Russian TV journalists killed in volatile Central African Republic spoke no French, had trouble communicating with their driver, and had inconsistent contact with their local fixer, according to two people who were in touch with the journalists.

The three, working for a journalism project funded by anti-Kremlin campaigner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, went to Central African Republic to investigate the activities of the Wagner Group, a clandestine firm of Russian private military contractors.

They were killed on Monday, about 200 kilometres northeast of the capital Bangui, when armed men emerged from the bush and fired on their vehicle, according to local officials.

Central African Republic has been ravaged by violence, often fought between predominantly Christian and Muslim militia. Most of the country is beyond the control of the Bangui government.

Russia's foreign ministry said on Friday a preliminary investigation showed that the three — Orhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko — were killed during the course of a robbery.

Russian officials have said the journalists were sent on the assignment with inadequate planning for such a dangerous environment. Khodorkovsky said the journalists were experienced war correspondents who made their own decisions about security, and they were given the resources they asked for.

Issues with local fixer

The journalists had planned to arrive in Bangui on July 30, according to a close friend of Radchenko, and to Anastasiya Gorshkova, deputy editor of the TsUR online news organization that assigned them to go to Central African Republic.

The three made plans accordingly with their local fixer, known to them only as "Martin."

Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos Oil Company, is shown on July 24. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

But their connecting flight from Morocco to Bangui was changed, and they ended up landing in Bangui two days ahead of schedule. They were unable to reach their fixer, and there was no one to meet them at the airport because the driver arranged by Martin was not scheduled to be there until Monday.

Eventually they did get in touch with Martin and they met the driver in Bangui. But the driver did not speak English well and nobody in the group spoke French, Radchenko's friend said, citing messages that Radchenko sent her.

The three journalists and the driver set off on Monday for the town of Bambari, about 400 kilometres from Bangui where they were to meet Martin. But according to Radchenko's friend, contact with Martin was inconsistent. Gorshkova said his replies to messages were often delayed.

The friend did not want to be named, citing a Russian criminal investigation into the killings of the journalists.

The journalists were killed in Sibut, northeast of the capital Bangui. (Google)

The journalists had no satellite phone but two of them were using local SIM cards, according to Gorshkova.

She said the last time the journalists' colleagues in Moscow were in contact with Martin was on Saturday, and that since the killings they had not been able to reach him.

Radchenko's friend and another person who knows him said that the Russian SIM card he was using came online on Tuesday, a day after the three were, according to official accounts, killed.

His friend said she spotted activity on his account in Telegram, an electronic messaging service. An old chat was deleted, and a new chat was created. Whoever was using the phone did not respond to messages. It was not clear how the phone came to be online or who was using it.