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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainian Prosecutor Says Corpse is Likely Reporter's

KIEV, Ukraine - A decapitated and decaying corpse at the centre of a political scandal enveloping Ukraine's leadership is in all likelihood that of a missing journalist, the country's top prosecutor said on Wednesday.

The General Prosecutor, Mykhailo Potebenko, has been accused of dragging his heels in investigating the disappearance last September of reporter Georgiy Gongadze.

Confirmation that the corpse is Gongadze's would bolster his supporters' fears that he was murdered. Potebenko qualified his statement, based on DNA tests, by saying the reporter might nonetheless still be alive.

Gongadze's disappearance has raised fears over press freedom and corruption in the ex-Soviet country. He ran a news website, www.pravda.com.ua, which was often critical of President Leonid Kuchma and powerful businessmen. Opposition politicians have accused Kuchma of involvement in his disappearance.

Kuchma denies any role in the affair and dismisses as fakes tape recordings by a former security service officer purporting to document the president talking about sidelining Gongadze.

"There is a great likelihood that the corpse is Gongadze's," Potebenko told a news conference. "We can say it is possibly Gongadze's, but I give no guarantee."

He earlier told parliament that DNA tests had shown that there was a 99.6 percent chance it was Gongadze, based on comparisons with the DNA of the reporter's mother.

But Potebenko cast doubt on the authenticity of the audio tapes. He quoted experts as saying there were signs of editing, and their poor sound quality made it impossible to prove the voices on it were those of Kuchma and his aides.



SCANDAL GRIPS COUNTRY

The Gongadze case has turned into a major political scandal, with street traders doing a brisk trade in copies of the tapes, strewn with expletives and references to other politicians.

Mykola Melnichenko, the former SBU secret service officer who said he recorded them by placing a recording device in Kuchma's office, has gone into hiding somewhere in Europe. Kuchma last week issued a writ for libel against him.

But the case has also brought accusations from Kuchma's political opponents that the prosecutor's office is subject to pressure from his entourage, most recently, they say, by launching a case against Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko oversees the notoriously corrupt energy sector and Kuchma has in the past sought to ease her out of office.

She denies charges of smuggling, tax evasion and forgery stemming from her previous job as head of a private gas trading firm, and has accused prosecutors of launching it in order to distract interest from the Gongadze case.

Potebenko shrugged off the accusations.

"I tell you with certainty that the decision to start the case (against Tymoshenko) was taken irrespective of the timing, and purely in relation to new material uncovered in the case of (disgraced former Prime Minister Pavlo) Lazarenko," he said.

Lazarenko was convicted last year of money laundering by a Swiss court, which seized $6.6 million from his bank accounts. He is being held in San Francisco facing charges of laundering $114 million allegedly stolen while in office from 1996-1997.

Ukraine is ranked the world's third most corrupt country by anti-graft group Transparency International. The latest scandals came as it secured renewed International Monetary Fund lending and is hoping to attract foreign capital through privatisations.

The United States has praised it for regaining the confidence of international lenders but urged a "speedy and transparent" investigation into Gongadze's disappearance.