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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radio Chief Gunned Down in Smolensk

The head of an independent radio station in Smolensk that has exposed corruption among local top officials has been shot dead in what his colleagues believe was a politically motivated killing.

Sergei Novikov, 37, president of Smolensk's only independent radio station, Vesna, was shot seven times in the head after entering his apartment building late Wednesday in what police call "an evident contract hit." The assailant's identity was unknown.

The time of the slaying remains unclear, as the 9mm pistol used in the killing was equipped with a silencer, local police spokesman Vladimir Nazarov said. Novikov's body was found by a neighbor on the stair landing between the second and third floors of his building at 9:15 p.m., the spokesman said.

Investigators are focusing primarily on Novikov's business connections since, in addition to his media interests, Novikov also headed the board of directors at the Pervomaisky glass-making plant outside of Smolensk, Nazarov said.

At the same time, the spokesman said it cannot be ruled out that Novikov, who had planned to run for governor, was killed for political reasons.

Journalists at Vesna said they believe Novikov was assassinated because of the station's criticism of local authorities and numerous corruption expos?s in the retinue of Governor Alexander Prokhorov.

Since going on air in April, Vesna has repeatedly alleged that senior officials in the Smolensk regional administration, including the governor and his deputy Yury Bobyshkin, maintain ties with local organized crime leaders, Vesna journalist Olga Ilgudina said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Citing law enforcement officials' consistent failure to investigate these allegations, Novikov announced earlier this year that he would run for governor in 2002 to try to root out corruption himself, Ilgudina said.

Calls to Prokhorov's press secretary, Alexander Korolyov, went unanswered Thursday. But he told Ekho Moskvy radio that there are no reasons to believe Novikov's slaying was political.

The Russian Union of Journalists in a statement Thursday condemned the murder as a "political crime" and "an attack on freedom of speech, on the right of society to know the truth about itself."

The statement noted that Novikov was gunned down a day after his station had aired a program harshly criticizing the regional administration.

This is the second high-profile murder in Smolensk in under three weeks. On July 11, gunmen killed Sergei Kolesnikov, head of the regional legislature's commission on law and order.

Both Prokhorov and the region's former chief prosecutor Alexander Zabo-lotsky are personal acquaintes of Tigran Petrosyan, reputed to be the region's most powerful mobster, Ilgudina said.

Petrosyan was arrested in September 1999 and charged with extortion only to see the charges dropped in May.

While still in jail, Petrosyan accused senior officers from the local organized crime force of executing local mob bosses. On the basis of these accusations, then-prosecutor Zabolotsky arrested four officers from the force last fall. All of them remain in prison awaiting trial, although Zabolotsky was forced to resign in connection with the case in May.