Notorious Chechnya colonel shot dead in Moscow

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A gunman on Friday shot dead Russian army colonel Yuri Budanov, who strangled to death an 18-year-old Chechen girl during the war in Chechnya in a crime that shocked Russia, investigators said.

The horrific murder in 2000 of Elza Kungayeva became a symbolic example of abuses by the Russian army in the war in Chechnya, but Budanov was regarded as a nationalist hero by extremists and had been released early from jail.

The shooting took place on Komsomolsky Prospekt in southwest Moscow around midday as Budanov emerged from an office building, the Russian Investigative Committee said in a statement.

"An unknown individual shot him several times. Budanov died from firearms wounds at the scene," it said.

It said that the gunman -- who was driven to the scene by an accomplice in a foreign brand car -- pumped four bullets into Budanov's head from a pistol. The car was later found, partially burned.

A security source told Russian news agencies that the murder seemed to be a "contract killing". The investigators said it appeared to have been carefully planned and Budanov had been trailed by his killers.

The motive of the crime remains unclear but it came amid increased inter-ethnic tensions in Moscow after unprecedented race riots pitting Slavic extremists against Muslims from the Caucasus in December.

The investigative committee said the murder could have been aimed at stirring up ethnic tensions, with nationalist groups already suspecting Chechens had carried out the crime as blood revenge.

"Given the prominence of Budanov it cannot be excluded that the murder was carried out with the aim of creating a provocation. Nevertheless it is premature to point to ethnic groups," the committee said.

Budanov was released from jail in January 2009 after serving only part of his 10-year sentence for Kungayeva's murder, a move that provoked angry protests by Russian rights activists.

Just days after his release from jail, a masked gunman killed human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov as he was emerging from a news conference protesting Budanov's return to freedom.

Anastasia Baburova, a young journalist working on opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was killed alongside Markelov in one of the most shocking killings in Russia in recent years.

Last month, a Russian court sentenced nationalist Nikita Tikhonov, 30, to life in prison for the murder of Markelov and Baburova in a rare victory for the embattled rights community.

His co-accused Yevgenia Khasis, 25, his common-law wife, received 18 years in a penal colony for complicity in the crime.

Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group, told Moscow Echo radio that the murder of Budanov may have been motivated by revenge and the problem could be traced back to his early release in 2009.

"This was a signal to those fighting Russia that the laws of Russia do not apply and the laws of the mountains, the laws of revenge are in force," he said.

Budanov had been arrested in 2000 and in July 2003, after a lengthy trial that was widely criticised, was found guilty of kidnapping and murder.

Charges of raping Kungayeva were dropped during the trial although rights activists still believe there was firm evidence to convict Budanov on this count.

Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, who previously headed a nationalist-tinged political movement, vehemently denounced Budanov's killing as an attempt to provoke ethnic tensions in Russia.

He told Moscow Echo the crime was a "provocation against Russian society and the inter-ethnic peace which cost us so much blood."

The head of extreme right-wing nationalist group Russians, Dmitry Demushkin, told the Interfax news agency that the murder would lead to a flare-up of nationalist tensions in Russia.

"There is no doubt that the traces of this murder lead back to Chechnya," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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