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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Senior Central Banker Shot Dead

The killing of Andrei Kozlov, 41, the first deputy chairman of the Central Bank, was the highest-profile assassination in Moscow during the six years President Vladimir Putin has been in power.

Kozlov had led a fearless campaign to close banks suspected of involvement in money laundering. Gunmen fired on him as he left a soccer match between bank employees on Wednesday night.

Kozlov fell to the ground bleeding from the head and chest and was rushed to hospital, where he died a few hours later after emergency surgery. His driver was killed on the spot.

"Andrei Kozlov died early this morning," said Inna Sigeyeva, a deputy chief doctor at Moscow's Hospital No. 33.

His murder plunged the financial establishment into shock. With his department closing banks at the rate of two or three a week, Kozlov had no shortage of enemies and his colleagues said he had paid the ultimate price for his zeal.

"He was at the cutting edge of the battle against financial crime. He was a very brave and honest man and through his activity he repeatedly encroached on the interests of unprincipled financiers," Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said.

Only last week, Kozlov had called at a banking forum in Sochi for much tougher penalties against bankers found guilty of money laundering.

The country's financial markets are used to unpleasant surprises and reacted calmly to the killing. Sberbank gained 1.7 percent and the rouble opened little changed against the U.S. dollar.

Kozlov's killing, with its grim echo of the often violent years of Boris Yeltsin's rule, was uncomfortable news for Putin who has consistently trumpeted the stability he has brought to Russia in the year Moscow heads the Group of Eight.

After overseeing years of rapid economic growth, Putin now wants a trouble-free political climate in which to prepare an orderly presidential succession in 2008.

Al Breach, chief economist at Swiss bank UBS, said the murder could unsettle investors, though it was unlikely to change the overall investment climate.

"It will remind people of political risk before the presidential elections," he said.

The Kremlin declined immediate comment on Kozlov's killing.

Russia has about 1,200 banks. Many of them are tiny outfits with little capital and banking experts say allegations of malpractice are common.

"They assassinated Kozlov because he withdrew bank licenses. It is horrible that these attacks still happen in Russia. The government must find the killers," said Vladislav Reznik, chairman of the State Duma's Finance Committee.

The banking system grew out of chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union when violence was a part of doing business. One analyst said the attack showed the sector had still not shaken off its past.

Contract-style killings of wealthy businessmen and bankers were common in the 1990s but they tapered off after Putin came to power in 2000.

Kozlov's killing is the highest profile attack since Anatoly Chubais, chief executive of Unified Energy Systems, escaped unscathed in an attack on his motorcade in March 2005.

In the only other attacks on top state banking officials, shots were fired through a window in 1997 at the then-Central Bank chief Sergei Dubinin.

"This event forces us to acknowledge what the Central Bank has been up against from a community which has its roots in the wild early years of transition," said Rory MacFarquhar, an economist at Goldman Sachs in Moscow.

Kozlov, who was married with three children, started at what was then the Soviet central bank at the age of 24. He rose quickly through the ranks to become first deputy chairman in 1997. He left two years later for a spell in the private sector, rejoining the central bank in April 2002.