Mon, Mar 07, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Kuchma returns to Ukraine as murder investigation grows

AFP , KIEV

Ukraine's former president Leonid Kuchma returned Saturday to Kiev, where he is likely to face questioning over the gruesome murder of an opposition reporter that became a symbol of the rampant corruption of his regime.

Kuchma flew into Kiev from the Czech Republic where he had been vacationing, a day after his onetime interior minister Yury Kravchenko was found dead.

The former minister was found dead just hours before he was due to answer prosecutors' questions over the 2000 slaying of investigative reporter Georgy Gongadze.

Kuchma did not speak to reporters upon arrival.

Although prosecutors have not yet said whether they will summon Kuchma over Kravchenko's death, which authorities have called a suicide, or the so-called "Gongadze affair," many observers expect the former leader eventually to be questioned.

Before leaving the Czech Republic, Kuchma said he realized he would be called before Ukrainian prosecutors. Communist parliamentarians called for his arrest following Kravchenko's death.

Gongadze, who had been critical of Kuchma in articles in his Internet newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, disappeared in September 2000 and his headless body was found two months later.

The murder triggered widespread anger at the government that culminated in last year's "orange revolution" protests that brought to power opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko -- a Kuchma opponent who nearly died from poisoning during the election campaign.

Yushchenko has made solving Gongadze's murder one of the top priorities of his administration.

Kuchma was implicated in Gongadze's murder after his former bodyguard Mykola Melnichenko released tapes that allegedly had recorded Kuchma ordering Kravchenko to take care of the investigative reporter.

Kuchma has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has called the tapes a fabrication. Kuchma said Friday he was innocent "before God, before the people and before my conscience."

Asked about the apparent suicide, Kuchma said he "couldn't believe that Yury Kravchenko had done that."

Authorities say Kravchenko, who was found in his home with a gun in his hand, shot himself twice in the head.

"My loved ones. I am not guilty of anything," said a note found near him, according to Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko.

"Forgive me. I have become a victim of political intrigues of president Kuchma and his entourage. I am leaving you with a clear conscience. Goodbye," Ukrainska Pravda quoted Lutsenko as saying.

But Ukraine's press raised doubts that Kravchenko had committed suicide.

"Who benefits from Kravchenko's death" headlined daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, stating that the suicide "is not a proven fact."

Either Kravchenko had ordered Gongadze's killing or "his death was in the interest of several people, particularly those who are really behind the killing who do not want to be held responsible for the crime," the paper wrote.

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