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Kuchma's Top Cop Found Dead

KIEV -- Former Ukrainian Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko was found dead Friday, hours before prosecutors were to question him about the killing of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze five years ago, officials said.

President Viktor Yushchenko said Kravchenko's death could be linked to the investigation into the killing of Gongadze, who investigated Ukrainian government corruption.

Kravchenko had been implicated in organizing the killing and had been summoned to give testimony to prosecutors at 10 a.m. Friday.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Inna Kisel said Kravchenko's death appeared to be a suicide. She did not provide any further information.

Ukraine's TV5 television reported that the 53-year-old former top police official had shot himself at his country residence in an exclusive neighborhood outside Kiev. Relatives found his body after they heard a gunshot, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.

"Everyone has a choice: either appear before the court and publicly stand up for his rights and honor or dispense justice on himself," Yushchenko told journalists in parliament, where he met briefly with parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who has also been implicated in Gongadze's case.

Gongadze was abducted in Kiev in September 2000, and his decapitated body was found months later buried in a forest outside the capital. His death sparked months of protests against former President Leonid Kuchma, who the opposition alleged had ordered the killing. Kuchma, who is currently at a spa in the Czech Republic, has denied any involvement.

Yushchenko issued a written statement saying that the investigation into Kravchenko's death "must be conducted in a transparent and professional manner and in full accordance with law." He said he had ordered Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko and Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun to take personal control of the inquiry.

Lawmaker Andriy Shkil blamed prosecutors for Kravchenko's death, claiming they increased the pressure on him by publicly announcing that he had been summoned to testify. "His death will make the investigation much more complicated," he said.

Gongadze's widow said that while Kravchenko's death was a blow to the investigation, she was confident the investigation would push ahead "because there's no way back now."

"Kravchenko was a key link in the chain of the crime," Myroslava Gongadze said by telephone from the United States, where she now lives.

The allegations against Kuchma concerning Gongadze's death were based on recordings that a former presidential bodyguard said were made secretly in Kuchma's office. In the tapes, Kuchma was overheard repeatedly complaining about Gongadze's reporting and ordering Kravchenko to "drive him out, throw [him] out, give him to the Chechens."

Lytvyn, who was Kuchma's former chief of staff, was also allegedly heard on the tapes saying: "In my opinion, let loose Kravchenko to use alternative methods."

Kuchma and his circle have disputed the authenticity of the tapes. Lytvyn dismissed the allegations in an earlier interview with The Associated Press, saying, "I wasn't brought up that way."

He said Thursday he was ready to testify in connection with the case.

Kuchma's spokeswoman, Olena Hromnytska, said the former president had no immediate comment on Kravchenko's death. "Let's wait for the results of the investigation," she said.

Stepan Khmara, a pro-government lawmaker, called for Kuchma to be "taken under protective custody immediately."

"The course of the case leads toward Kuchma, and I personally suspect his involvement," said lawmaker Taras Chornovyl of former presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych's Regions of Ukraine party.

Yushchenko, who was elected in December, has made solving Gongadze's slaying a top priority for his government. On Wednesday, Piskun, the prosecutor general, said investigators had identified all four people involved in Gongadze's slaying and knew who the mastermind was. He refused to identify the person who ordered the killing.

Two of the suspected killers are in custody, one is under orders not to leave Kiev and the fourth, senior police official Oleksiy Pukach, is wanted on an international warrant, Piskun said. All were employed by the Interior Ministry.

Ukraine's Segodnya newspaper reported that Kravchenko had been put under official surveillance in December and ordered not to leave the country.

Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a lawmaker who has repeatedly focused public attention on the need to solve Gongadze's slaying, told The Associated Press that he had asked the prosecutor to detain Kravchenko more than a month ago.

"The arrest would have been a way to protect Kravchenko," he said. "If he had been arrested, he would be alive."

Kravchenko's death is the second mysterious death of a former senior government official since Yushchenko's election victory. The former transportation minister was found dead in December near his country house outside Kiev in an apparent suicide.

(The Moscow Times 05.iii.05)

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