(Bloomberg) -- It was another horrific murder of a Russian journalist that reverberated around the world, a man pictured lying dead in a pool of blood.
Arkady Babchenko was shot dead at his home in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, after returning from buying bread, local police said late Tuesday.
The world’s media, including Bloomberg News, reported the killing all day on Wednesday with details of previous assassinations and archive footage of the 41-year-old reporter who had been critical of the Kremlin. The news sparked condemnation from the international community and Russia protested being blamed.
Then, at about 5:20 p.m., Babchenko reappeared in Kiev.
To the amazement and applause of the assembled journalists at the headquarters of the State Security Service, or SBU, Ukrainian authorities said they had staged his murder. And even his wife wasn’t in on it.
“Of course now, I would have to express my deep condolences to the family of Arkady Babchenko,” said Vasyl Hrytsak, head of the SBU. “But I will not do it. I will congratulate his family and all of us and Arkady Babchenko on his birthday.”
The bizarre sequence of events is unlikely to help ties between Ukraine and Russia. The post-Soviet allies fell out in 2014 and a military conflict on their border continues to claim lives.
Ukrainian authorities said the goal of the staged murder was to catch the people who’d actually been planning to kill Babchenko. Hrytsak said Russia had sought to pay $40,000 for his death and that those behind the real assassination plot had been apprehended. He didn’t give any more details.
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President Petro Poroshenko said he ordered a 24-hour security detail for Babchenko and his family because “Moscow will not calm down.” The operation, he said, showed “Ukraine finally learnt how to protect itself and its citizens.” He was the only person in the government who knew of it, he said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which earlier denied any involvement in Babchenko’s death, said it was pleased to hear that he was actually alive, accusing Ukraine of “propaganda.”
Babchenko is a well-known war correspondent in Russia. He traveled to the conflict in Ukraine and criticized the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines passenger flight MH17, which killed 298 people. Investigators from Australia and the Netherlands last week blamed Russia for the tragedy.
Having been called unpatriotic over a piece last year on Russia’s intervention in Syria, Babchenko complained of an atmosphere of hate toward his work. Prominent Russians to have been murdered in Kiev include journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bomb in 2016, and ex-Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov, who was shot dead in 2017.
On Tuesday night, shortly after 9 p.m., a family friend in a Facebook post relayed news of the assassination. Babchenko’s wife, he wrote, had called to say that the journalist had been shot in their home and was taken to the hospital. It later emerged from police that he died in the ambulance. A photo of the dead man was posted on Facebook by Anton Herashchenko, a lawmaker and an adviser to the Interior Minister.
After Babchenko was reported killed, many reporters spent the night near his apartment. News organizations went into overdrive.
The editor-in-chief of Ukraine’s most popular weekly magazine, Vitalii Sych, on Wednesday said the murder was his cover story ready to be sent to the printers. “It’s all very weird,” he said.
For others, it was harrowing. At the news conference in Kiev, Babchenko had an important apology to make.
“I want to apologize that all of you had to go through that -- I was at funerals of my friends and colleagues, so I know this nauseating feeling, but it was the only way out,” he said. “Separately, I wanted to apologize to my wife for the hell she went through during these two days.”
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