Russia was behind the murder last month of a former Chechen rebel in Germany, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, rekindling concerns that Moscow is ramping up an assassination campaign against the country’s perceived enemies abroad.
The victim, a 40-year-old Georgian who once commanded forces against Russia during a Chechen uprising, was gunned down in a Berlin park on Aug. 23 on his way to a local mosque. Minutes later, German police arrested a Russian man attempting to leave the scene on an electric scooter after he discarded a pistol and silencer.
The murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili is the latest in a flurry ofassassinationsof Kremlin antagonists or attacks on them.
Last year, Western governmentsexpelled more than 100 Russian diplomatsin response tothe poisoningin the U.K. of a former Russian spy and his daughter, which London has blamed on the Russian military foreign-intelligence service GRU. The two survived exposure to the Russian nerve agent novichok.
The assertion by American officials marks the first time the U.S. linked Russia to the killing. German officials initially said the killing might be related to organized crime. Authorities in at least three countries—Germany, Poland and France—are now probing the slaying.
“The United States believes that Russia is responsible for this assassination,” a U.S. official said.
German authorities haven’t commented further about the attack and the man in custody despite swirling rumors that the killing might have been politically motivated. The Kremlin hasn’t responded to requests for comment. It has denied any involvement in Mr. Khangoshvili’s death.
U.S. officials declined to say which government officials or organizations in Russia they believe to have been involved in the alleged plot to kill Mr. Khangoshvili.
The Kremlin has emphatically denied any involvement in killings overseas even though Russia formally legalized the practice in 2006. Since thenseveral Kremlin opponents have diedin attacks in the Middle East, Turkey and in Ukraine. Attacks in Europe have been rarer.
The absence of a German government reaction to Mr. Khangoshvili’s murder has sparked criticism from opposition parties that Berlin is eager to avoid a confrontation with Russia. A spokesman for the German government declined to comment and said the investigation was continuing.
The Berlin prosecutor’s office, which is leading the investigation, declined to comment. But in a sign of the mounting suspicions, U.S. officials and one German official familiar with the case said Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, has now joined the probe. The BND didn’t respond to a written request for comment.
One official said the suspect had recently come out of Russian prison after serving a murder sentence. Upon his release, he was given a bona fide Russian passport under the name Vadim Sokolov, which U.S. officials believed to be a cover. Within days, he used the document to apply at the French Embassy in Moscow for a special visa allowing holders to travel freely through Europe’s Schengen document-free travel bloc.
“A fake identity with a real passport can only be provided by authorities in Russia,” one U.S. official said.
The suspect then flew to Paris and from there traveled to Warsaw, where he stayed for several days before traveling on to Berlin, the U.S. official said. He rented out a room at a Warsaw hotel and left his luggage there when he departed for Berlin, with the intention of returning, a senior Polish government official said.
In Berlin, the suspect, whose real identity remains unknown to investigators, is thought to have been briefed by accomplices about the daily routine of Mr. Khangoshvili. Around midday on Friday, Aug. 23, investigators say, the suspected killer confronted the Chechen émigré in a park in central Berlin as Mr. Khangoshvili was on his way to the mosque in which he regularly worshiped.
The suspect rode to the victim using a bicycle the officials said had been placed near the scene before the shooting. He sped toward Mr. Khangoshvili and shot him twice in the head with a Glock 26 handgun fitted with a silencer in full view of passersby, people familiar with the investigation said.
The suspected assassin then hid in a bush, changed his clothes and disposed of the gun and the bicycle in the Spree River near the park where the murder took place, according to police. Witnesses called the police, who arrested the suspect as he was about to flee on the scooter, police said.
German police are now investigating who procured the bicycle and the scooter. The suspect was intending to travel back to Poland after the killing, according to the official familiar with the probe.
Police are likely to run into uncertainties in determining who, precisely, the gunman was working for inside Russia.
Western officials say that Russian assassinations outside its borders have traditionally been directed either by the federal government in Moscow, or by Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who commands a security apparatus of ethnic Chechens.
Two people familiar with the investigation say there is another possibility—namely, that the murder was ordered by Chechen authorities, not Moscow, but still executed with the help of Russian operatives who fitted the assassin with a fake identity and new passport.
Friends of Mr. Khangoshvili said he had for years dodged attempted assassinations and that his death in Berlin capped a career of fighting Moscow, first as a field commander and eventually as a hunted refugee.
A confidant of Chechnya’s former president, Aslan Maskhadov, said Mr. Khangoshvili distinguished himself as a midlevel commander in the breakaway region’s second war against Russia in the early 2000s. One acquaintance said he likely aroused the hatred of Russia’s security services for his role in a raid on the Russian city of Nazran in 2004 in which dozens of security service officers died.
After rebel resistance was crushed inside Russia, Mr. Khangoshvili fled with others to the neighboring state of Georgia, where for several years he was employed informally by the Georgian government, specializing in counterintelligence against the Russians. There, he narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt and an ambush in which his car was riddled with bullets.
He left Georgia in 2015, hoping to find work in Ukraine, which was fighting its own war against Russia, but in Kiev he failed to find a job with the Ukraine’s premier security service, the SBU. Amid a spate of assassinations, he feared for his safety and left with his wife for Germany.
In Germany, Mr. Khangoshvili applied for refugee status, but was refused repeated requests for special protection from the German government, said Givi Targamadze, a former official in the Georgian government who kept in touch with him until recently.
At the time of his death, Mr. Khangoshvili was still trying to obtain state-appointed bodyguards through the German court system, said Mr. Targamadze.
“He felt that even though he wasn’t able to get the protection he asked for, he felt relatively safe in Germany,” said Mr. Targamadze. “Apparently he wasn’t.”
—Thomas Grove in Moscow contributed to this article.
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