Russian Liberal Politician Shot Dead

Liberal Russian lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov, a critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot to death Thursday near his Moscow apartment building, police said.

The speaker of Russia's lower parliament immediately branded his death a political killing.

Yushenkov, a Liberal Russia party leader, was shot three times in the back and died later of his wounds, a Moscow police spokesman said. A pistol with a silencer was found near the scene, police said.

Yushenkov, 52, was killed hours after announcing that Liberal Russia would participate in December's parliamentary elections. Liberal Russia is a small party and is not believed to pose a serious challenge to the pro-Kremlin parties in the Duma elections.

Party spokesman Yuli Nesnevich told NTV television that Yushenkov had not received any threats recently.

"I have no doubt at all that this was a political murder," Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Chief Moscow Prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov said the shooting most likely was connected to Yushenkov's "activities as a lawmaker."

Viktor Pokhmelkin, co-chairman of Liberal Russia, said he was certain it was a contract killing.

"It has the obvious handwriting of a professional," Pokhmelkin told Rossiya television, referring to the gun left at the scene — considered a typical taunting gesture of hired killers in Russia.

Putin offered his condolences to Yushenkov's family and colleagues and ordered Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov to oversee the investigation.

"A person who considered the defense of democratic freedoms and ideals his duty has been killed," Putin said, according to a Kremlin statement.

During the 1991 coup attempt by Communist hard-liners, Yushenkov joined supporters of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Dressed in his military uniform, he stood in front of tanks that were rolling toward the parliament building, said Yuli Rybakov, an independent lawmaker.

Yushenkov, a supporter of human rights causes and an opponent of the war in Chechnya, believed that Russian democracy was losing ground under Putin.

He was the second member of the Liberal Russia party gunned down this year. In August, Vladimir Golovlyov was shot in the head, and Yushenkov said then that he believed the killing was politically motivated.

The Liberal Russia party was founded last year with the financial backing of Boris Berezovsky, a self-exiled tycoon and Putin opponent who was elected one of its co-chairmen, along with Yushenkov.

Several months later, however, Liberal Russia broke ties with Berezovsky because of the tycoon's political overtures to the Communists.

Yushenkov, a member of the Duma Security Committee, sharply criticized the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

Last year, he and his party publicized a Berezovsky-financed film purporting to prove FSB involvement in the 1999 bombings in Moscow and other cities that killed 300 people and preceded the Kremlin decision to send Russian troops back into Chechnya, launching the second war there in a decade.

He also was on a nongovernment commission looking into claims of a government role in the bombings.

Rybakov suggested Russia's security services could be behind the murder.

"This is a strike against the democratic movement as a whole," he said.