Bodies of 3 Russian journalists killed in Africa returned to Moscow

The bodies of three Russian journalists killed while investigating a shadowy security firm in the Central African Republic (CAR) were returned to Moscow on Sunday, Russia’s Investigative Committee said.

Investigators will now spend at least two days examining the bodies of Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguev and Orkhan Dzhemal, before they are given to their loved ones for burial, Maxim Shevchenko, a friend of one of the dead journalists, told Russian news agency TASS.

The three men were reportedly investigating a paramilitary organization with links to the Kremlin, when their vehicle was stopped by armed men and they were killed in an ambush on Monday.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on Friday that the journalists were “attacked by unidentified persons with a goal of robbery and were killed while attempting to offer resistance.”

They were killed near the city of Sibut, about 185 miles north of the capital Bangui.

But muddying the incident is that the trip was also backed by a foundation — the Center for Investigation — run by Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky. A long-time foe of Putin who spent years in prison in Russia, Khodorkovsky wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that the journalists were working on a project about “Russian mercenaries.”

The men were in the country to investigate the activities of Wagner, a shadowy Russian private military firm, said a Russian online news outlet, the Center for Investigation Management (TsUR), in a Facebook post last week.

The deaths of the journalists has now focused attention on Russia’s growing interest in central Africa, and the relationship between the Kremlin and private Russian companies that combine security work with mining and other activities.

Wagner: A secretive firm

The firm the journalists were apparently investigating, Wagner, is led by Dmitry Utkin, a former colonel in the Russian special forces who is under U.S. sanctions for assisting pro-Russian separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

It is a secretive company — with no known address, phone number or official records — that recruits hundreds of former Russian soldiers, many of them special forces or “spetsnaz.” In the last few years, its contractors have appeared in a growing number of conflict zones, such as Syria and Ukraine.

In February, dozens of Wagner contractors were killed or injured during a firefight with U.S. forces and their allies in Syria. The company has not commented on that case, or any allegations leveled against it.

More recently, Wagner appears to have developed a presence in Sudan, which shares a border with CAR.

Russia has relied on — but never officially acknowledged the existence of — mercenary firms in conflict zones.

Russian officials have been quick to downplay the incident in CAR last week, with Zakharova saying in Facebook post Wednesday “There is no sensation in the presence of Russian instructors in the CAR, no one hid anything.”

“Moreover, based on information received from the local site, they (the journalists) ignored warnings that they are leaving the zone controlled by local law enforcement agencies. What they really were doing in the CAR, what were their goals and objectives — is a question,” she added.