Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who had been reported shot and killed in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday, has shown up at a news conference alive.
Vasily Hrytsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, told a news conference in Kiev on Wednesday that the agency faked Babchenko’s death to catch those who were trying to kill him.
He added that the staged death was part of a “special operation” to pre-empt a real plot to kill him.
The organiser of this alleged plot was arrested in Kiev earlier on Wednesday, according to Hrytsak, who said that “investigative actions” are under way.
He accused Russian security services of recruiting a Ukrainian national to carry out the murder for a fee of $40,000.
Kiev and national police had said Babchenko, a strong critic of the Kremlin, was shot multiple times in the back at his apartment building and found bleeding by his wife.
He showed up at a news conference on Wednesday and thanked everyone who was mourning his death. He also thanked the Ukranian Security Service for saving his life.
Babchenko said he was not allowed to go into the details of his false death. He said Ukraine’s law enforcement had been aware of a contract on his head for two months. He said he was approached by the Ukrainian Security Service a month ago.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow, said that Babchenko used the news conference to apologise to those closest to him, including his wife, who had not been informed of the operation.
“We had heard reports since the shooting yesterday – or what seemed to have been a shooting that it was his wife that found him bleeding on the floor of their apartment and called an ambulance and that he died on his way to hospital in the ambulance.
“She, it seems, did not know that he was not dead and so, in this press conference, earlier in Kiev, he sent his apologies to his wife saying, ‘I’m sorry about this but this is the way it had to be done.'”
‘Fanning anti-Russian hysteria’
News of the “death” of Babchenko set off a series of recriminations between Kiev and Moscow, and pictures and flowers were laid by mourners at the Russian embassy in Kiev.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said on social media on Tuesday that he was convinced “the Russian totalitarian machine” had not forgiven Babchenko for what Groysman called his honesty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had rejected allegations that Moscow was behind the murder of the journalist, calling it part of an anti-Russian campaign, the TASS news agency reported on Tuesday.
Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), said Ukrainian allegations the FSB was behind the killing of Babchenko were nonsense and a provocation, the Interfax news agency reported earlier on Wednesday.
Following Wednesday’s press conference where Babchenko appeared alive, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was happy the journalist was alive but spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the operation was done for “propagandistic effect”, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency.
The foreign ministry added that Ukrainian government was “fanning anti-Russian hysteria. We’re confident our foreign partners and the relevant international agencies will draw correct conclusions from the whole situation.”
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said on Twitter on Wednesday that he had given an order to provide Babchenko and his family with protection.
Babchenko, one of Russia‘s best-known war correspondents, left his country in February 2017, saying he was receiving threats and he was concerned he might be jailed.
He served in the Russian army during the first separatist war in Chechnya during the 1990s and later became a journalist. He worked as a military correspondent for several Russian media outlets.
In the autumn, Babchenko moved to Kiev, where he worked as a host for the Crimean Tatar TV station, ATR.
Reporters Without Borders condemned the staged event, calling it a “pathetic stunt” on Wednesday.
Christophe Deloire, the head of the Paris-based media watchdog, told AFP news agency that while he was relieved that was still alive, “it is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive … for the stunt”.