Several Russian journalists say they were attacked while investigating the suspected secret burials of soldiers believed to have been killed in Ukraine.
Reporters from different news outlets this week said they saw graves believed to be those of paratroopers in a village graveyard near the town of Pskov in western Russia, where the soldiers were based.
Vladimir Romensky, a reporter for Dozhd, an independent television station, and Ilya Vasyunin of Russkaya Planeta, a Russian news website, said they were accosted by two men in the village and told they “would never be found” unless they immediately returned to Moscow. The reporters went to the local graveyard anyway, and assailants threw stones at their car and slashed the tires.
Romensky said two other journalists told him they had been forced into a van while attempting to visit the graveyard earlier in the day and taken to a forest where their abductors threatened to kill them.
Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper often critical of the Kremlin, said it was alerted to the secret burial of the soldiers near Pskov by an Internet message posted by the wife of one of the dead men.
Oksana Kichatkina, the wife of Sgt. Leonid Kichatkin, wrote on her page on Vkontakte, the Russian social networking site, on Aug. 22 that her husband had been killed and invited friends to the funeral. The message disappeared from the VKontakte webpage the next day.
Reporters from Novaya Gazeta and Fontanka.ru, a St. Petersburg-based independent news site, visited the graveyard near Pskov on Monday and saw a fresh grave bearing Leonid Kichatkin’s name. Russian officials had provided no explanation for the death of the soldier except to say he had been killed in the Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, a relative of Kichatkin later told the reporters.
Lev Shlosberg, a deputy in the Pskov regional assembly, told Dozhd he had witnessed the burial of a paratrooper in the Pskov graveyard Saturday. Shlosberg said he had heard from several sources that the soldier had been killed near the the town of Luhansk.
Russian authorities have not confirmed the deaths of the servicemen or explained the burials. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, late Wednesday dismissed reports about the burials as “rumors.” More investigation was needed, he told the Interfax news agency.
Other reports suggest an unexplained rise in the number of wounded soldiers undergoing medical treatment in Russia. Ella Polyakov, a member of the Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, told Dozhd on Tuesday that at least 100 injured servicemen had been taken to a military hospital in St. Petersburg.
Ukraine and its Western allies have repeatedly accused Russia of supporting the separatist insurgency with military hardware and personnel. Russia denies the charges.
Ukrainian officials said this week they had captured 10 Russian soldiers in Ukrainian territory and published video interviews with the men. Russian officials said it appeared that the soldiers had strayed into Ukrainian territory by mistake while patrolling Russia’s western border.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Wednesday encouraged Russia to investigate what’s happening to some journalists reporting events related to Ukraine.
“I urge the authorities to swiftly and thoroughly investigate these attacks and bring the perpetrators and masterminds behind these acts to justice,” Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on media freedom, wrote in a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “These attacks serve as a grim reminder of the appalling situation regarding journalists’ safety in Russia.”
Gorst is a special correspondent.