Russian investigators have arrested two men from the restive North Caucasus region as suspects in the brazen slaying of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov more than a week ago, the Russian Federal Security Service chief announced in a televised statement Saturday.
FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov identified the two men, Anzor Kubashev and Zaur Dadayev, in a rare television appearance on state-run Channel 1. But he did not announce any charges and disclosed little else about the case other than that "necessary investigation activities are currently in progress."
Though Nemtsov allies hailed the first reported progress in the investigation of his Feb. 27 killing, the accusations against suspects from the Caucasus region suggested that authorities are pursuing the theory they put forth just a day after the contract-style assassination — that it was motivated by enemies of Russia trying to destabilize the country.
Nemtsov, 55, the most visibly outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down as he walked along a bridge with his 23-year-old Ukrainian girlfriend, model Anna Duritskaya, just before midnight after dining at a fashionable Red Square restaurant. The shooting occurred just yards from the Kremlin wall along the Moscow River embankment, an area usually under intense surveillance.
Duritskaya was compelled to stay in Moscow for three days after the slaying for interrogation but fled to her parents' home in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, as soon as police said she was free to go. She left under escort by a Ukrainian diplomat and her lawyer, skipping her slain lover's funeral, which drew thousands to central Moscow on Tuesday.
Ukraine's prosecutor-general reported that Duritskaya had been placed under protection Friday after reporting to police that she had received a death threat from "unknown persons." She was being guarded as a witness in the Nemtsov murder investigation, Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin said in statement.
Security video from the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was felled by four gunshots to the head and torso was aired on TVC, a Moscow television network. The video showed a man jumping into a passing car that sped away seconds after Nemtsov was shot. The killing wasn't visible on the security video because a snow plow parked on the bridge obstructed the view from the camera — even though there was no snowfall that night.
Fellow opposition coalition leader Ilya Yashin said he welcomed news of the arrests but called on the federal agency to disclose more results of the investigation, which was ordered by Putin.
"The FSB now says that they have ironclad evidence of these two men from North Caucasus being directly involved in the attack and they could identify them without doubt using the footage from some other cameras which recorded their faces," Yashin told The Times. "It is very good but from now on the investigation should be as public as possible because the most important thing is to identify and apprehend those who ordered the crime."
Yashin and other opposition figures have accused the Kremlin of complicity in the slaying of Nemtsov, who was a first deputy prime minister during the 1990s Kremlin leadership of late President Boris Yeltsin.
Putin, his Kremlin entourage and state-controlled media have cast Nemtsov as a traitor for his defense of the new government in Ukraine after Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich was driven from power a year ago by a pro-Western European rebellion. The Kremlin has portrayed the political figures now governing Ukraine as fascists bent on repressing the country's Russian-speaking minority.
Nemtsov had given an interview to the private TV Dozhd network on the night of his killing in which he called the Russian role in the Ukraine conflict "mad" and "aggressive."
Yashin has said Nemtsov was preparing a report providing evidence of Russian troops' involvement in the Ukraine conflict, contradicting Kremlin denials of having sent weapons or fighters to assist pro-Russia separatists occupying two key eastern Ukraine regions.
Yashin said he believed the two men arrested are Chechens, members of the Muslim minority that has waged two secessionist wars against Russian government forces since 1994. The Caucasus region is now secured by Russian forces and governed by a Kremlin appointee.
The Moscow-allied leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was a prime target of Nemtsov's scathing criticism. Since the Russian opposition leader's killing, Kadyrov has alleged that it was the work of Western special services trying to destabilize Russia.
Officials of the Russian Investigative Service assigned to the investigation by Putin put forth several theories on who might have been behind the killing within hours of the crime that stunned Russia's already beleaguered opposition supporters, as well as those abroad who see Russia sliding into lawlessness and political repression.
Other potential motives, Investigative Service spokesman Vladimir Markin said the day after the slaying, included an act of Muslim fundamentalist terrorism, an opposition or Ukrainian gunman seeking to create a martyr of Nemtsov, business rivals settling a score with the politician or a "crime of passion," alluding to his relationship with Duritskaya and the unclear status of his marriage. None of the scenarios involved any Kremlin role in the killing.
More than 20,000 people participated in a mourning march a week ago, many of them chanting "Putin is the killer!" as they passed along the Kremlin walls.
"I have no doubt Russian special services were involved in the killing," Vladimir Milov, Nemtsov's close associate and former deputy energy minister in Putin's first government, said in an interview with The Times after the burial. "The place at all times should be crawling with police and security agents, and the killers must have acted in unison with them if they managed to get away so easily."
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.