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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Hero' Missile Designer Shot Dead in Urals

A prominent missile designer and factory director, said to have been one of the key players in the sale of a Russian missile system to the United States, has been shot in the head in an apparent contract killing.

Valentin Smirnov, inventor of the Russian S-300V missile, the Russian counterpart to the American Patriot Missile, was shot Tuesday morning outside his home in Yekaterinburg, police said Thursday. The death of Smirnov, 62, a recipient of the coveted Soviet Hero of Socialist Labor medal and one of Russia's most renowned inventors, sent shock waves through the law enforcement community and prompted extraordinary measures.

Russian law enforcement officials, in the days after the killing, created an unusually large special task force to investigate the crime. The group will be made up of operatives from four different governmental branches -- Yekaterinburg police, the Federal Security Service, the Prosecutor General's Office and federal investigators from the Interior Ministry, according to a ministry spokesman.

Interfax reported that 150 investigators in all will be sent to Yekaterinburg, 1,200 kilometers east of Moscow, to investigate. The ministry spokesman, Yevgeny Ryabtsyev, said, however, that the number was "unrealistic."

"You'd never see a number that high," Ryabtsyev said. "But there is quite a large team going down there. How many exactly is, of course, a government secret."

Although killings of prominent persons have become commonplace in Russia, the Moscow press gave unusually wide coverage to Smirnov's murder. Izvestia ran two large front-page stories, both of which suggested that his death was connected to the U.S. purchase last April of Smirnov's S-300V missile system for $60 million.

That purchase aroused controversy at the time, as many Russian military experts believed the sale amounted to a betrayal of Russian military secrets to Washington. The missile, which Russians say has a superior tracking system to the Patriot, was designed to shoot down radar-evading Stealth warplanes.

U.S. officials said at the time of the sale that they intended to analyze the missile system with the aim of upgrading and modernizing the Patriot, which gained fame for shooting down Iraqi Scud missiles during the presumably was involved in the S-300V purchase, said she could not provide any information on the S-300V purchase.

"We'll have to look into it," she said.

Brian Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman in charge of questions involving former Soviet countries, said the Pentagon itself made no such purchase.

"The government doesn't buy weapons systems, contractors do," he said. "I suggest you contact Raytheon with questions about that missile."

Ryabtsyev declined to say whether the unusually heavy law enforcement and security response to Smirnov's death indicated that the government considered the crime an issue of national security. "Smirnov was a very important person, a famous scientist and inventor," he said. "Naturally, his murder requires a serious investigation."

The second Izvestia article, by Alexander Pashkov, also suggested that Smirnov's death might have been connected to the money earned from the U.S. purchase of the S-300V.

"According to my information," he wrote, "the money [from the purchase] took a very long time to make it to the factory. There were, as a result of this, inquiries in diplomatic channels ... A dark enough affair. Could his death be connected in some way with this matter?"

U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow could not be reached for comment and State Department officials in Washington declined comment.