Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Doubts grow over missing Russian candidate

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOSCOW

The mystery over the disappearance of a presidential candidate deepened Monday.

Moscow's prosecutor's office announced that it had opened a murder investigation in the case of the candidate, Ivan Rybkin, only to have federal prosecutors overrule them and close the case within an hour, saying there was no evidence yet to suggest foul play in his disappearance.

Rybkin, one of five challengers to President Vladimir Putin in the election on March 14, has not been seen or heard from since Thursday night, the police and campaign advisers said. On Sunday, the police began a search for him, interviewing his wife and others and searching places he was known to frequent.

By Monday night, a spokesman for the Moscow police, Kirill Mazurin, said investigators had made no progress, despite a statement by a member of parliament, Gennady Gudkov, that Rybkin was hiding in a spa outside Moscow. Gudkov's remark proved unfounded, Mazurin said.

Gudkov, a member of the pro-Kremlin party that controls parliament, said in an interview that he had heard "informal reports" about Rybkin's whereabouts, but had no detailed information.

Earlier, he told the Interfax news agency that he believed the patron of Rybkin's party, the businessman and former Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, had orchestrated Rybkin's disappearance -- apparently to attempt to discredit the presidential elections.

"I am 99 percent certain that this is yet another political stunt organized by Berezovsky," he told Interfax.

Russian and foreign news agencies that reported Rybkin's "discovery" based on Gudkov's remarks had to retract the reports.

"They lost Ivan Rybkin again," the news Web site Lenta.ru reported.

Rybkin's campaign manager, Kseniya Ponomaryova, described assertions that his disappearance was a hoax as "philistine." She said investigators were taking his disappearance seriously.

Berezovsky, who lives in self-exile in London after escaping a Russian criminal investigation he says is politically motivated, said he last spoke to Rybkin, whose presidential campaign he is supporting, last Wednesday afternoon. He, too, dismissed questions that Rybkin or others had concocted his disappearance.

"I am concerned about his fate," Berezovsky said in a telephone interview from London.

Russia's Central Elections Commission officially registered Rybkin as a candidate on Saturday, putting him in a field of six challengers to Putin, who is universally expected to win re-election. At the same time, the commission said that Rybkin faced a criminal investigation for falsifying signatures required to qualify him for the ballot.

On Monday, the official Russian Information Agency reported that one of Rybkin's campaign workers had been arrested in connection with the accusations of falsifications of his petitions.

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