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Sniper victim warned court he was a target

A Russian's slaying during a break in his trial in Ukraine may have been triggered by a business feud.

March 29, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A Russian businessman who was killed this week by a sniper as he left a Ukrainian courthouse had warned during his trial that he was targeted for death.

"I don't want to die. Please let me go," Maksim Kurochkin, 38, told the court Tuesday in Kiev, pleading to be released on bail because a contract had been placed on his life, Russian and Ukrainian news agencies reported Wednesday.

Kurochkin, who had faced extortion charges, was killed later that day in the building's courtyard by a bullet fired from the attic of a high-rise overlooking the site, authorities said. A policeman guarding him was wounded.

Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Kupyansky said Wednesday that the slaying was believed to be tied to a struggle for control of a market in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, the Ukrainian News Agency reported.

Kupyansky told a news conference in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that investigators were linking the Russian businessman's death to the killing of Volodymyr Vorobiov, former acting director of Central Market Co. in Dnipropetrovsk, and to the slaying of three Russians near a village outside Kiev.

Kurochkin, a Russian citizen, was known as "Mad Max," Ukraine's TV 5 Kanal reported. The station broadcast footage of him shouting out from the courtroom cage in which defendants are held, apparently addressing a woman in the room: "Christ has died already! Katyenka, do I have to die? I want to live on Earth with people!"

Kurochkin's extortion trial had already drawn attention because he was tied politically to Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose 2004 presidential election victory was overturned during the "Orange Revolution" protests against electoral fraud. The pro-Russian Yanukovich lost a runoff to Viktor Yushchenko, who favors closer ties with the West.

The prime minister told reporters Wednesday that he believed there were no political motives to the slaying.

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, a Moscow think tank, said it was unlikely that Kurochkin's political activities led to his death.

"There are so many pro-Russian businessmen in Ukraine that it makes no sense to kill a businessman for being pro-Russian. It is just another ugly gang war murder. That is all."

Amid the suspicions triggered by the slaying, Kupyansky was pressed into publicly denying that it had been faked so Kurochkin could disappear.

"There should emerge no questions on whether Kurochkin has been really murdered," the Interior Ministry official said at the news conference, according to the Ukrainian News Agency. "Nobody can institute a criminal case without a body in place. There is a body today."

Kupyansky said police had recovered a rare imported rifle and a tripod from the attic of the nearby building. Extensive experience would be needed to use the gun with accuracy, he said.

Kurochkin was shot in the chest as he walked toward the police car that was to return him to a detention center. The distance was unusually great because of repair work underway, Kupyansky said.

"There is a heap of construction materials near the entrance," he said. "Therefore, the car pulled up as close as possible to the door. It was impossible to get closer."

Witnesses reported two suspects leaving the scene, describing them as athletic and wearing black masks and jackets, Kupyansky said. They drove away in a silver Mazda that was soon found abandoned, he said.

Vitaly Portnikov, editor in chief of Gazeta24, a Kiev daily, agreed that the slaying was probably tied to a business dispute and said Kurochkin had a "sticky reputation" in the business world.

"Despite the fact that he helped Yanukovich's campaign, all of Kurochkin's activities were about business, not politics," Portnikov said in a phone interview.

"Kurochkin was said to prefer fighting without any rules."

*

david.holley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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