- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

KIEV — A former interior minister was found dead in his home yesterday just before he was to be questioned about the 2000 slaying of an investigative journalist, dealing a blow to an inquiry that could implicate the former president.

Former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko suffered two gunshot wounds to the head.

A TV station reported he left a note blaming his suicide on former President Leonid Kuchma “and his entourage.” The journalist’s widow suggested it was all part of a cover-up to protect “the old regime.”

President Viktor Yushchenko, who has made solving the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze a moral obligation for his new administration, ordered the current interior minister and prosecutor general to take over the investigation.

Mr. Kravchenko, 53, had been implicated in organizing the killing of Mr. Gongadze, who wrote about top-level corruption under Mr. Kuchma.

The killing of Mr. Gongadze — who was found decapitated in a forest outside the capital in 2000 — sparked months of protests against Mr. Kuchma. Critics of Mr. Kuchma say he ordered the killing.

Mr. Kuchma again denied any involvement yesterday.

“Before God, before people, before my conscience, I’m clean,” Mr. Kuchma told reporters at a spa resort in the Czech Republic. He said he would return home today and was prepared to talk to prosecutors, Czech and Ukrainian TV reported.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Inna Kisel said Mr. Kravchenko’s death “appears to be a suicide.” He died at his country residence outside Kiev.

Citing unidentified law enforcement officials, the Interfax news agency and Ukraine’s private NTN television reported Mr. Kravchenko left a note blaming “Kuchma and his entourage” for his death and said he wanted to save his family from “attacks.”

Yuriy Lutsenko, the current interior minister, said Mr. Kravchenko suffered gunshot wounds in the chin and in his temple. “One was not deadly; one was,” he said on Ukrainian TV.

Mrs. Kisel, the Interior ministry spokeswoman, said she had no information about the note.

The Ukrainian TV network Inter said Mr. Kuchma told reporters he did not believe Mr. Kravchenko ordered Mr. Gongadze’s killing, and said the former interior minister was under “crazy pressure,” partly from the media.

The charges against Mr. Kuchma are based on recordings that a former presidential bodyguard, Mykola Melnichenko, said were made secretly in the president’s office.

In the tapes, Mr. Kuchma is reportedly overheard repeatedly complaining about Mr. Gongadze’s reporting and ordering Mr. Kravchenko to “drive him out, throw [him] out, give him to the Chechens.”

Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who was Mr. Kuchma’s chief of staff, also was reportedly heard on the tapes saying: “In my opinion, let loose Kravchenko to use alternative methods.”

Mr. Kuchma has disputed the tapes’ authenticity and Mr. Lytvyn said he was ready to testify in connection with the case.

Stepan Khmara, a key lawmaker, said Mr. Kuchma should be “taken under protective custody immediately.”

Mr. Melnichenko, the former bodyguard, said yesterday that Mr. Kravchenko’s death “plays into Kuchma’s hands.”

“Fewer and fewer witnesses remain,” Mr. Melnichenko said by telephone from London.

Mr. Gongadze’s widow called Mr. Kravchenko’s death a setback for the investigation, but said she was confident it would not be stalled — “because there’s no way back now.”

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

She suggested the death was part of a cover-up attempt, saying there were “too many people from the old regime who would try to conceal the true course of events.”

On Wednesday, Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun said investigators had identified all four persons involved in Mr. Gongadze’s killing and knew who was the mastermind. He refused to reveal the person’s identity.

Two of the suspects, all employed by Ukraine’s police, are in custody. One is under orders not to leave Kiev and the fourth, senior police official Oleksiy Pukach, is at large and on an international warrant for his arrest, Mr. Piskun said.

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