A Russian politician who fled his homeland and became an outspoken critic of its president Vladimir Putin was murdered in central Kiev on Thursday, in what Ukraine called "an act of state terrorism" committed by Moscow.
Denis Voronenkov was shot dead as he stepped out of the exclusive Premier Palace hotel, and a gunfight left his bodyguard and his killer bleeding on the pavement until police arrived. The assassin, who is yet to be publicly identified, later died and the bodyguard is in hospital.
Mr Voronenkov appeared to be a loyal pro-Kremlin deputy in Russia's parliament until he was accused of fraud and fled to Ukraine last October. Once there, he obtained Ukrainian citizenship, denounced Mr Putin's rule and testified against Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia in 2014 after his security forces shot dead scores of people in Kiev during mass protests.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko told a meeting of security officials that the killing was "an act of state terrorism by Russia. There is the clear hallmark of the Russian special services, which has been seen several times before in other European capitals."
“Voronenkov was one of the main witnesses of Russian aggression against Ukraine, and in particular the role of Yanukovich in Russian forces being deployed in Ukraine.”
Moscow denies sending troops and weapons to separatists in eastern Ukraine – where almost three years of fighting have killed about 10,000 people and displaced about 1.5 million – and it rejected Mr Poroshenko’s allegations.
"We think that all the fabrications that can already be heard about a 'notorious Russian link' are absurd," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry, said Mr Poroshenko's accusations had made an objective investigation impossible.
“At first we were shocked by what happened but we’re even more shocked by Poroshenko’s statements,” she said.
“The killer regime . . . will apparently do everything to ensure that no one ever knows the truth of what happened today.”
After leaving Russia to escape charges that he claimed were politically motivated, Mr Voronenkov regularly criticised Mr Putin, even comparing him to Adolf Hitler and claiming that Russia had “gone mad in a pseudo-patriotic craze”.
Mr Voronenkov and his wife, opera singer and fellow former Russian deputy Maria Maksakova, were controversial figures in Ukraine, however, where many saw them as opportunists using Kiev as a bolt hole from changing fortunes in Moscow, where they had lived lavishly and mingled with close allies of Mr Putin.
Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko said Mr Voronenkov (45) was due to give evidence to the country's military prosecutor on Thursday in the case against Mr Yanukovich, who now lives in exile in Russia.
He was killed while on his way to meet Ilya Ponomaryov, another Russian politician who lives abroad due to his opposition to Mr Putin, and the only deputy to have voted against Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“I said that Voronenkov was not a crook, but an investigator who was deadly dangerous for Russian officials,” Mr Ponomaryov said.