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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Former Kuchma Bodyguard Faces Criminal Charges

KIEV, Ukraine - Ukrainian authorities launched a criminal case against a former security officer who has accused President Leonid Kuchma of involvement in the disappearance of an opposition journalist, officials said Friday.

Major Mykola Melnichenko, who is now in hiding abroad, is suspected of slander and forgery of an unspecified document, the State Prosecutor's office said in a statement. Prosecutors also announced a search for Melnichenko and said he would be kept under guard if detained.

Melnichenko has claimed that he secretly audiotaped Kuchma and other top officials discussing steps to silence journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, an outspoken critic of the government who disappeared in the capital Kiev Sept. 16.

The audio tape was later released by the leader of opposition Socialist Party, Oleksandr Moroz. In the recording, a man who sounds like Kuchma talks of Gongadze, but it is not clear whether he is ordering any action or simply venting anger.

Melnichenko was also questioned by members of a parliamentary board investigating Gongadze's disappearance. In that testimony, he claimed that Kuchma gave "criminal orders" in the Gongadze case, supposedly sought to stifle opposition media and political foes and falsified the results of 1999 presidential elections.

The officer, who served among Kuchma's bodyguards before resigning last year, said he was prepared to return to his home country.

Kuchma and others named by Melnichenko have strongly denied his allegations. Kuchma, speaking to reporters Thursday, said Melnichenko was "sick in his head."

The chief prosecutor's office said Melnichenko "acted with a premeditated intention to spread clearly false information that disgraces other people" and that all his allegations were completely untrue.

Gongadze edited the Internet newsletter Ukrainska Pravda and criticized high-level corruption. There was little progress in the case since the November discovery of a beheaded body in a forest near Kiev, which some believed was that of the journalist.

The government says its experts are examining the body, and lawmakers probing the case said they have onpassed some evidence to foreign experts as well. Kuchma said Thursday he had "no final information" about the outcome of these probes.

"The main thing is for this information to be reliable... and conclusive," he said.

Last month, the case prompted a row in parliament and protests in Kiev with demands for Kuchma to step down. Critics have long accused Kuchma of suppressing opposition media through court fines and tax penalties, but the government denies these charges.