Three Russian TV journalists killed in volatile Central African Republic spoke no French, had trouble communicating with their driver and had inconsistent contact with their local fixer, according to people in touch with them.
The three, working for a journalism project funded by anti-Kremlin campaigner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, went to Central African Republic to investigate the activities of the Wagner Group, a clandestine firm of Russian private military contractors.
They were killed last Monday, north-east of Bangui, when armed men emerged from the bush and fired on their vehicle, according to local officials.
Central African Republic has been ravaged by violence, often fought between predominantly Christian and Muslim militia. Most of the country is beyond the control of the Bangui government.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Friday a preliminary investigation showed the three – Orhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko – were killed during a robbery.
Russian officials said the journalists were on assignment with inadequate planning for such a dangerous environment. Khodorkovsky said the journalists were experienced war correspondents who made their own decisions about security and they were given the resources they asked for.
The journalists planned to arrive in Bangui on July 30, according to a close friend of Radchenko, and to Anastasiya Gorshkova, deputy editor of the TsUR online news organisation that assigned them to go Central African Republic.
The three made plans accordingly with a local fixer, known to them only as “Martin.”
But their connecting flight from Morocco to Bangui was changed and they landed in Bangui two days ahead of schedule. They were unable to reach their fixer and there was no one to meet them because the driver arranged by Martin was not scheduled until Monday.
Eventually they did get in touch with Martin and met the driver in Bangui. The driver did not speak English well and nobody in the group spoke French, Radchenko’s friend said, citing messages Radchenko sent.
The journalists and driver set off on Monday for Bambari where they were to meet Martin. According to Radchenko’s friend, contact with Martin was inconsistent. Gorshkova said he often replied to messages only with a delay.
The friend did not want to be named, citing a Russian criminal investigation into the killings of the journalists.
The journalists had no satellite phone but two were using local SIM cards, according to Gorshkova.
She said the last time the journalists’ colleagues in Moscow were in contact with Martin was on Saturday, and since the murder of the three they had not been able to reach him.
Radchenko’s friend and another person who knows him said the Russian SIM card he was using came online on Tuesday, a day after the three were, according to officials’ accounts, killed.
His friend spotted activity on his account in Telegram, an electronic messaging service. An old chat was deleted and a new chat was created. Whoever was using the phone did not respond to messages. It was not clear how the phone came to be online or who was using it.