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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arson Possible in Newspaper Fire

A fire tore through the office of a Vologda newspaper early Friday morning in what its editor called a possible arson attack aimed at heading off critical reporting ahead of election season.

The blaze erupted at around 3 a.m. Friday in the offices of the weekly newspaper Gazeta 35, local emergency situations official Alexander Kulyov said by telephone from Vologda.

Local police, the Federal Security Service and emergency situations experts were working at the scene Friday to determine the cause of the fire, he said.

"All versions, including arson, are being considered," Kulyov said.

Local police and FSB officials declined to comment. But cited FSB officials as saying they suspected an explosion had sparked the fire.

The newspaper's editor, Alexander Ilichyov, said the office might have been attacked as "a warning" ahead of State Duma elections in December.

Gazeta 35 has covered sensitive topics such as license revocations by local food department officials and illegal hunting practices in the Vologda region, Ilichyov said.

Last year, the newspaper ran a letter by Sergei Starostin, a regional official who oversees hunting, to Vologda Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalyov alerting him to an incident involving Spain's King Juan Carlos I and a purportedly drunk bear.

Starostin alleged in the letter that the Spanish king, on a hunting trip in the region in August, killed a bear called Mitrofan with one shot after Mitrofan had been plied with alcohol.

The newspaper has also conducted investigations into corruption among local officials and criticized Pozgalyov, Ilichyov said.

"Perhaps we stepped on someone's toes," Ilichyov said Friday. "From now on we'll be more careful."

He declined to elaborate.

The newspaper's journalists had holed themselves up in safe places, and he planned to follow suit, Ilichyov said.

Gazeta 35 will skip its next issue and pick up the following week using a spare office, Ilichyov said. The previous issue was released Tuesday.

Press freedom watchdogs said they were convinced foul play was involved in connection with the newspaper's work.

Boris Timoshenko of the Glasnost Defense Foundation said his organization would ask regional and federal prosecutors to keep it informed on the progress of the investigation.

"This was a well-planned arson attack meant not just to intimidate, but to destroy the newspaper's office," Timoshenko said.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the fire was an intentional act of "obvious intimidation."

Media watchdogs say journalists investigating corruption in the regions are particularly vulnerable to violence and intimidation by local business and political elites.