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14 May, 2008 00:43

Russia steps up hunt for suspected Politkovskaya killer

After Russia issued an international arrest warrant for the key suspect in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian Prosecutor's Office has placed the 34-year-old Chechen, Rustam Makhmudov, on Interpol's wanted list.

She was gunned down on October 7, 2006. Prosecutors say that Rustam Makhmudov was waiting for Politkovskaya as she came home with her shopping. He shot her four times in the head and chest.

The whereabouts of Makhmudov are unknown, and he faces abduction charges dating back over ten years. Three of his brothers are already under arrest in connection with the case.
Former colleagues at Politkovskaya's newspaper have been conducting their own investigation. They’ve praised the efforts of the police to find the actual killer but say those who ordered the killing must also be prosecuted.

Indeed, identifying the contractor has been the most difficult task. It’s possible that not even the gunman knew who’d ordered the hit. Other than Makhmudov nine people are facing charges in connection with the murder yet their suspected role in the killing is uncertain.

Within the last month two have been released, though the charges remain. Demelkhanov has been allowed out as he played no direct part in the murder, but was an auxiliary figure. The same goes for Grachev.

Makhmudov and most of those still under guard have been labelled a part of the ethnically-Chechen Lasagna gang, dubbed after a restaurant in central Moscow where they used to meet. This has prompted media speculation that the murder trail goes back to the Caucasian republic.

Musa Muradov, one of the top Russian journalists writing about Chechnya, sounds a word of caution:

“The prosecutors may be getting ahead of themselves if they think they have solved the murder. For example, the so-called Lasagna gang has not cohesively existed since the nineties. And blaming this on Chechens may seem obvious, but the whole situation is not straightforward”.

Back in 2006 the apparent contract killing of a journalist famed for her fearless and independent investigative reporting sent shockwaves through Russia and beyond.

Politkovskaya was highly critical when writing about Chechnya, prompting some to speculate she was assassinated by one of the subjects of her stories. Others, including highly-placed officials called the murder a deliberate provocation, intended to hurt Russia's image abroad.