Hundreds mourn murdered deputy


An aide to a Russian politician shot dead on Friday was seriously ill in hospital yesterday as repugnance at the crime grew across a vast country well accustomed to violent quasi-political assassinations.

Ms Galina Starovoitova, a liberal deputy, and her assistant, Mr Ruslan Linkov, were ambushed near her home in Russia's second city, St Petersburg.

Mr Linkov (27) was shot in the head and throat, but military doctors treating him said there was a good chance he would live and that he might be able to provide clues to the shooting.

Police have found an automatic weapon and a pistol at the scene of the shooting and believe the killers were a man and a woman.

The President, Mr Boris Yeltsin, has taken personal charge of the investigation, describing Ms Starovoitova as "a passionate tribune of democracy and a close ally since Soviet times".

As he is the sole witness of Friday's shooting, Mr Linkov's ward at the St Petersburg Military-Medical Academy is under close guard. Speculation about the motives for the shooting has continued unabated, with many, including the Kremlin, saying they suspect political foul play.

Meanwhile, hundreds of mourners continued to leave flowers by the stairwell of Ms Starovoitova's apartment building in central St Petersburg, the scene of the assassination.

Ms Starovoitova (52) was a co-chairman of the Democratic Russia party and sat in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, where she was a fierce critic of the chamber's dominant Communist and ultra-nationalist factions. All Duma factions have joined Mr Yeltsin and the Prime Minister, Mr Yevgeny Primakov, in condemning the killing, which many see as setting a dangerous precedent ahead of next year's parliamentary election and a presidential poll due in 2000.

Mr Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, said he hoped Ms Starovoitova's death would frighten Russia's divided and weakened liberal camp into unity.

"How many more honest, decent Russians have to be killed before democrats understand that only by sticking together can they achieve something in power and ensure that Russia becomes a safe country," Mr Nemtsov, a pro-reformer, told Ekho Moskvy radio.

Ms Starovoitova was reportedly preparing to run for the vacant seat of governor of the Leningrad region surrounding St Petersburg. She was also helping pro-democracy candidates taking part in next month's election to the local assembly.

She is the first high-level woman politician to be assassinated in Russia. Her murder follows several high-profile shootings in St Petersburg, a city with a large criminal underworld.

Ms Starovoitova's funeral will be held tomorrow, and her sister, Olga, has told Ekho Moskvy that she should be buried at the city's Alexander Nevsky monastery, the resting place of novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky.

Police say the investigation at Ms Starovoitova's home, at Griboyedov Canal, will last 10 days.