Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who was reportedly shot to death in front of his Ukraine apartment Tuesday, walked into a press conference Wednesday very much alive.
The 41-year-old reporter said he had cooperated with Ukrainian security forces to fake his own murder, including posing in gory crime-scene photos, to thwart a Russian plot to kill him.
His colleagues who gathered Wednesday at a Ukraine media conference thought they were going to get an update on Babchenko's murder investigation. Instead, they saw a man they believed to be dead, now walking and talking.
"I'm still alive," he told the shocked audience. He apologized to his wife for putting her through a "nightmare," but said there was no other alternative to playing dead.
"Olechka, I am sorry, but there were no other options here. I'm sorry for making you live through this," he said. "I've buried my own friends and colleagues many times myself."
Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that Babchencko, a well-known veteran war correspondent, had been shot three times in the back as he left his home to buy bread. He was discovered in a pool of blood and died in an ambulance on the way to a local hospital, authorities said.
Ukraine Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman wasted no time in blaming the Kremlin for Babchencko's death and suggested the journalist had been targeted because of his work.
Babchenko said officials had come to him a month ago, saying they had uncovered a "serious" plan to murder him. He was told the plot was hatched in Moscow and involved "government security forces," Babchenko told reporters.
Ukrainian officials asked him to participate in a sting operation to avoid being assassinated, he said. The details of the threat to Babchenko's life were murky. Russian spy agencies had contracted a middleman to arrange the murder and paid him $40,000 according to Vasyl Hrytsak, the head of Ukraine security forces.
That man in turn approached a former Ukrainian volunteer soldier to carry out the killing, Hrytsak said. The middleman is now in custody, he said.
Babchenko's fakery drew sharp criticism from Russian and the international media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
Director, Christophe Deloire expressed his "deepest indignation at the discovery of the manipulation of the Ukrainian secret services. It is always deeply dangerous for states to play with the facts," he said on Twitter.
RSF expresses its deepest indignation after discovering the manipulation of the Ukrainian secret services, this new step of a war of information. It is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts, especially using journalists for their fake stories. https://t.co/XwwbepYsjc— Christophe Deloire (@chrisdeloire) May 30, 2018
Ukrainian and Russian officials have been at each other's throats since Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, sending weapons, tanks and soldiers to rebels in the area. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting.