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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gongadze Murder Probe Opened

KIEV — Ukrainian prosecutors launched a murder investigation into the death of reporter Georgy Gongadze on Tuesday as President Leonid Kuchma reiterated his denials of involvement in the killing.

Gongadze, whose headless corpse was burned with acid before being buried in a shallow grave outside Kiev last year, was a crusading Internet journalist harshly critical of Kuchma. His murder sparked Ukraine's biggest political scandal in a decade.

"The prosecutors' office … has made the decision to launch a criminal case into the premeditated murder of G. Gongadze," prosecutors said in a statement.

The move, just a day after prosecutors finally confirmed the headless body was Gongadze's, marked a sudden change in pace in the investigation, which has been criticized by the European Union and United States.

Gongadze's relatives and friends have accused prosecutors of attempting a cover-up on orders from Kuchma.

Kuchma, who has dismissed thousands of protesters calling for his resignation as troublemakers, reiterated in a letter to the Financial Times newspaper on Tuesday that he thought he was the target of a smear campaign by political opponents.

The president first came under pressure in November when tapes were played to parliament in which a voice similar to his ordered officials to "get rid" of Gongadze.

Prosecutors initially dismissed the tapes as fakes, but Kuchma later acknowledged it was his voice.

He said the expletive-strewn tapes secretly recorded in his office had been doctored.

"In recent weeks my administration and I have been under attack by accusations of murder and corruption. Although corruption is, in fact, an ongoing problem in my country, accusations of murder … are completely untrue," Kuchma said.

"Even an unbiased observer can see that the provocation against me was made just when the Ukrainian economy started to emerge from crisis," he said.

An economist at a Western bank said Kuchma's letter to the Financial Times came as Ukrainian debt, which in the absence of major foreign investment is the main barometer of outside interest in Ukraine, had been hit by the political scandal.

Kuchma reiterated in his letter that Gongadze's killers should be brought to justice.

"In any country the death of a journalist is a major tragedy. We in Ukraine believe that freedom of the press is an integral feature of a democratic country," he said.

Andriy Fedur, a lawyer acting for Gongadze's mother, Lesya, said he was insisting on another round of tests on the body. Fedur said that samples for the tests should be taken in his and her presence.

"We want a confirmation that the body … is indeed that of Georgy Gongadze," Fedur said.

The attorney also said he met with Kuchma late Monday and that Lesya Gongadze, who requested a meeting with the president, would be seeing him soon.

"I hope our voice will be heard and the state will act in accordance with the law," Fedur said, according to Interfax.

Lesya Gongadze wants Kuchma to fire the nation's two top prosecutors over mistakes in the investigation, Fedur said. There were no details of his meeting with Kuchma.

Shortly before disappearing in September, Gongadze, who ran a news web site (www.pravda.com.ua), complained of being followed by men driving what he thought were unmarked Interior Ministry cars, a claim officials denied. (Reuters, AP)