German media, lawmakers point finger at Moscow over executed Georgian

Berlin (AFP) –


Despite Russian denials, German politicians and media are blaming Moscow for the Berlin assassination of a Georgian who once fought Russian forces in Chechnya, an affair that could spark a diplomatic crisis.

One security source, in comments to German weekly Der Spiegel, described the killing as a second Skripal affair -- referring to the attempt on the life of a former Russian agent in England last year.

On Friday, August 23, German police arrested a 49-year-old suspect from Russia's Chechnya republic, shortly after Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, 40, had been shot dead.

Khangoshvili had fled to Germany from Georgia after surviving previous assassination attempts.

On Saturday, Der Spiegel, in a joint investigation with investigative websites Bellingcat and The Insider, reported details of how the Russian secret services -- or the regime of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov -- may have been involved in the killing.

The Kremlin on Wednesday formally denied involvement in the killing of Khangoshvili, shot once in the shoulder and twice in the head at close range, according to Bellingcat.

The site said the victim had fought for the Chechens in the second Chechen war in 1999-2002, then continued supporting Chechen separatists from his native Georgia. In 2008, he "recruited and armed" a volunteer unit to fight Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, it added.

The site also said he had joined an anti-terrorist unit in Georgia's interior ministry, while retaining links with Islamists.

After surviving two assassination attempts in Georgia, he had spent recent years in Germany, where he had applied for political asylum. Russia has denied involvement in any of the attempts on his life.

- Passport puzzle -

Police arrested a suspect shortly after the shooting, who had allegedly thrown a stone-laden bag containing his firearm and his getaway electric bicycle into a river.

They also found a wig they think he wore during the attack, an air ticket for Moscow for the following day and a large sum of cash in his apartment, Der Spiegel reported.

The joint media investigation named the suspect as 49-year-old Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, a Russian national from Siberia. Police have charged him with murder and are holding him in Berlin.

The joint media investigation reported that he had travelled to Germany having obtained a visa for France just a day after applying.

While he had a valid passport, Bellingcat said they had established that no such person existed in Russia's national citizen database.

That made Russia's claim that he was not connected to the state implausible, Bellingcat said, as no one outside the state apparatus could get a valid passport using a fake identity.

An additional troubling element in the case is that the suspect's passport number has been traced back to a unit of the Russian interior ministry which has already in the past delivered identity documents for GRU intelligence.

The GRU was cited in the case of last year's poisoning in Britain of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, after Bellingcat said it had identified those responsible for that attack came from the military spy agency.

Russia has repeatedly also denied any involvement in that incident.

Spiegel, Bellingcat and The Insider concluded from their investigation that Russian implication in the killing of Khangoshvili was a "possible scenario".

- 'Russian hallmark' -

The media investigation also looked at other potential scenarios.

They considered a link to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who has close ties with Russia's president Vladimir Putin -- and "Chechen Islamists", who "might have acted in revenge over rivalries linked to organised crime" or to the victim's military past.

A German government source told AFP Saturday only that the victim was known to German security officials.

Despite Russian denials, a German security source told Spiegel earlier this week they were "100-percent certain" Russia was responsible.

Patrick Sensburg, a lawmaker with the ruling party and a security specialist told Bild daily: "There are some indications the author of the crime had links with Russian (security) services.

"If that proves to be the case the question is who is pulling the strings in Moscow."

Green lawmakers are also calling for answers, while a Chechen protest rally is scheduled for Wednesday in Berlin.