KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine's former interior minister was found dead of an apparent suicide Friday, just before he was to meet with prosecutors for questioning about the 2000 slaying of an investigative journalist, dealing a blow to an investigation that could also implicate former President Leonid Kuchma.
The death of the journalist — who was found decapitated in a forest outside the capital — sparked months of protests against the former president, who the opposition alleged had ordered the killing. Kuchma has denied any involvement.
Citing unidentified law enforcement sources, the Interfax news agency and Ukraine's private NTN television reported that Kravchenko left a note in which he blamed "Kuchma and his entourage" for his death and said he wanted to save his family against "attacks." The sources said Kravchenko had two gunshot wounds, Interfax reported.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Inna Kisel said she had no information about the note.
President Viktor Yushchenko (search) said Kravchenko's death could be linked to the probe into Gongadze's slaying and ordered Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and the Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun to take the investigation under personal control.
"Everyone has a choice: Either appear before the court and publicly stand up for his rights and honor, or dispense justice on himself," Yushchenko told journalists in Ukraine's parliament, where he met briefly with Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn.
Kisel said Kravchenko's death was an apparent suicide, and Ukraine's TV5 reported that the 53-year-old former police official shot himself at his country residence. His body was found by family members after they heard a gunshot, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
Gongadze was abducted in Kiev in September 2000, and his decapitated body was found months later buried in a forest outside the capital.
Yushchenko issued a statement saying the investigation into Kravchenko's death "must be conducted in a transparent and professional manner and in full accordance with (the) law."
The allegations against Kuchma, who is currently at a spa in the Czech Republic, were based on recordings that a former presidential bodyguard said were made secretly in his office. In the tapes, Kuchma was overheard repeatedly complaining about Gongadze's reporting and ordering Kravchenko to "drive him out, throw (him) out, give him to the Chechens."
Lytvyn, Kuchma's former chief-of-staff, also was allegedly heard on the tapes saying: "In my opinion, let loose Kravchenko to use alternative methods."
Kuchma and his circle have disputed the authenticity of the tapes. Lytvyn dismissed the allegations in an earlier interview with The Associated Press, saying: "I wasn't brought up that way." He said Thursday he was ready to testify in the case.
Kuchma's spokeswoman, Olena Hromnytska, said Kuchma had no immediate comment on Kravchenko's death. "Let's wait for the results of the investigation," she said.
Ukrainian media later reported that Kuchma planned to return to Ukraine, possibly as early as Sunday.
Stepan Khmara, a pro-government lawmaker, called for Kuchma to be "taken under protective custody immediately."
"The course of the (Gongadze) case leads toward Kuchma and I personally suspect his involvement," said lawmaker Taras Chornovyl of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's Regions of Ukraine Party.
Yushchenko, who was elected in December after a bitter campaign in which Kuchma backed Yanukovych, has said that solving Gongadze's slaying is a top task and a moral obligation of his government. He ordered investigators to move quickly.
On Wednesday, Piskun said investigators had identified all four people involved in Gongadze's slaying and knew who was the mastermind.
Two of the suspected killers were in custody, one was under orders not to leave Kiev and the fourth, senior police official Oleksiy Pukach, was wanted on an international warrant, Piskun said. All were employed by the Interior Ministry.
Ukraine's Segodnya newspaper reported that Kravchenko had been put under official surveillance in December and ordered not to leave Ukraine.
Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a lawmaker who has repeatedly focused public attention on the need to solve Gongadze's slaying and arrest the masterminds, told AP he had asked the prosecutor to detain Kravchenko more than a month ago.
"The arrest would have been a way to protect Kravchenko," he said. "If he had been arrested, he would be alive."
On Monday, a man identified as a key witness in the case, Yuriy Nesterov, was reportedly wounded when an unidentified assailant lobbed a hand-grenade at him. Another key witness, former police officer Ihor Honcharov, died in prison two years ago under suspicious circumstances. He had implicated Nesterov in kidnapping, torturing and killing Gongadze.
Kravchenko's death is the second mysterious death of a former senior government official since Yushchenko's election. The former transport minister was found dead in December near his country house outside Kiev in an apparent suicide.