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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uralmash Director Killed in Sverdlovsk

Assailants fatally shot the director of Uralmash, one of the country's top machine-tool producers, while he was on his way to work Monday in Yekaterinburg.

The apparent contract killing of Uralmash-Zavody general director Oleg Belonenko, 51, came days before he was to meet with President Vladimir Putin, the company said in what it called an open statement to the president.

Uralmash management cast the killing as symptomatic of a nationwide problem, deflecting attention from speculation that it was tied to the company's attempts to deal with organized criminal groups pushing onto its turf.

Uralmash management and board of directors said in their statement that the killing was "carried out with horrible cynicism" and constituted "a warning not only to the company's employees but also to Russian authorities."

Belonenko was shot in the head outside his apartment building while getting into a company car. He died approximately three hours later on a hospital operating table. His driver, wounded in the chest during the shooting, also died in the hospital. Police have not identified the gunmen.

According to eyewitnesses, two men wearing track suits were seen running away from the crime scene after the shooting, NTV television reported.

Belonenko was appointed Uralmash director in December after two years as the company's first deputy director.

"I can't think of any reason for it to have happened," said Kakha Bendukidze, general director of the behemoth Unified Machine Factory holding company f of w hich Uralmash-Zavody is part f during a Moscow news conference Monday. "I always thought these kinds of things only happened where there were open conflicts and shady deals. If Belonenko can be killed, it means danger for anyone."

Bendukidze dismissed a number of possible motives for the murder, including creditors' anger and attempts to take over the company's leadership. Police also have failed to offer a possible motive for the killing.

Sverdlovsk region Governor Eduard Rossel lost no time in petitioning Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo to send federal investigators. "I will do everything I can to solve this crime," Rosse said in statements reported by Interfax. Rushailo said he complied with the request, sending criminal investigators and representatives from his ministry's department for fighting organized criminal groups, Interfax reported.

The Interior Ministry will investigate the case jointly with the Federal Security Service, Rushailo said.

Contract killings have long been a commonplace means for settling business disputes, with hundreds of businessmen murdered each year. Few cases are ever solved. Other company executives killed this year include Ilya Vaisman, St. Petersburg's Baltika beer company financial director; Sergei Vever, Sverdlovsk's Kamensk-Uralsky precious metals company board director; and Valentina Ilina, director of Kemerovo's Prokopevskaya tobacco factory.

"The Urals, Siberia and machine-building are all very criminalized," said Aton brokerage analyst Alexander Agibalov. "There are many similar killings. This one just happened to make it into the news because it's the biggest."

It is no secret the Unified Machine Factory holding has been in conflict with organized criminal groups intent on muscling into the machine-building industry. Under the directorship of Viktor Korovin, Belonenko's predecessor, more than 100 commercial firms f a number of which are reputed to be controlled by criminal groups f set up shop in the Uralmash plant, ostensibly to sell Uralmash spare parts. The company saw none of the profits, The Associated Press reported.

"There is a point of view that there were various schemes involving criminal groups in the factory and that the general director had come up against them," Agibalov said of possible motives for Belonenko's murder.

Chief among the company's foes is the oddly named Uralmash Public and Political Union, widely believed to be an organized criminal front. One of its reputed leaders, Alexander Kruk, was found dead in an apparent suicide in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, last month.

Bendukidze said his company has no links with the group. Belonenko had attacked the Uralmash Public and Political Union and other groups, demanding they stop using the Uralmash name.

Uralmash had prospered under Belonenko's directorship, which coincided with a sharp increase in domestic industrial-sector demand. The company has won large contracts to provide metallurgical equipment to factories this year and said it hoped to increase sales 30 percent from last year's levels to $275 million. The company also said productivity has risen 58 percent this year, AP reported.

Belonenko came to Uralmash in 1997 after several months at Tatarstan's Insorp company. Before that, he held a series of posts at the Kamaz truck-building enterprise, where he worked his way up to vice president.

Bendukidze said Belonenko's murder cast a shadow over the company's immediate future. "It can't raise the level of investors' trust," he said. "But while it affects us directly, it also influences the whole Russian market."

Despite owing back taxes, Uralmash-Zavody had considered issuing American Depositary Receipts at the end of the year or the beginning of 2001, but Bendukidze said the director's murder would affect any such plans.

Agibalov, however, said the director's death is unlikely to hurt either its production levels or its financial situation in any way. "Belonenko only worked as director for about half a year," he said. "Meanwhile, his deputy has been dealing with the job, so Belonenko's absence won't affect the company."

Bendukidze said he did not know who would replace Belonenko.

Putin planned to travel to the Sverdlovsk region this week for the largest exhibition of Russian-made arms.