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Putin vows to punish killers of Kremlin critic, as opposition condemns "political murder"

Boris Nemtsov was a fierce opponent of Vladamir Putin and was set to lead an opposition rally. He was shot in the back on a bridge near the Kremlin

Updated at 8.50pm

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN has vowed to punish the killers of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov as Russian opposition figures denounced what they called a “political murder” and Western leaders called for a full probe.

The 55-year-old former deputy premier, a vocal Putin critic prominent at opposition rallies, was shot in the back several times shortly before midnight yesterday as he walked across a bridge a stone’s throw from the Kremlin walls.

The brazen assassination is the latest in a string of murders of opposition figures in Putin’s 15 years in power and recalls the shooting of anti-Kremlin reporter Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down on Putin’s birthday in October 2006.

Putin blamed the assassination on foes trying to discredit the Kremlin, but said in a message to the victim’s mother that “everything will be done so that the organisers and perpetrators of a vile and cynical murder get the punishment they deserve.”

Source: Pavel Golovkin/AP/PA

Rally

Allies of Nemtsov, a longtime anti-corruption crusader who served as deputy premier under Boris Yeltsin, linked his death to his political activities.

Hours before the killing, he went on air to urge Russians to join an opposition rally tomorrow against the Kremlin stance in Ukraine.

“There is already a list of unsolved political murders and attack in Russia,” Amnesty International said.

We cannot allow Boris Nemtsov to become just another name on this list.

Streams of mourners, many in tears, filed across the bridge today, heaping flowers and photos of Nemtsov at the spot where he fell.

Russian state television — which in recent years has denied Nemtsov airtime — gave lavish coverage to his murder.

Investigators said gunmen fired at least eight shots from a moving car as Nemtsov walked with a woman who was not injured. Russian television named her as 23-year-old Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya.

Russia Opposition Leader Killed Flowers lie on the ground as Russian police officers stand near the place where Boris Nemtsov was shot. Source: Pavel Golovkin/AP/PA

‘Propaganda campaign of hatred’ 

Opposition figures said his death was linked to his outspoken opposition to Putin and in particular his criticism of Russia’s stand on the Ukraine conflict.

They pointed the finger at a climate of hatred whipped up by the Kremlin.

“The political responsibility for this murder lies with the authorities and personally President Putin — those who started and are fighting a war and are running a propaganda campaign of hatred in its support,” former Yabloko liberal party leader Grigory Yavlinsky wrote on Facebook.

“If a few days ago, people were walking round with a placard saying ‘let’s finish off the fifth column’, and today Nemtsov is killed, then let’s think what will happen tomorrow,” said a fellow deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, Anatoly Chubais, referring to a pro-Kremlin rally.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny questioned how Nemtsov could have been killed, saying he would have been under surveillance ahead of Sunday’s planned rally.

“I can’t believe that yesterday night he could have strolled towards the Kremlin without being watched,” he wrote in his blog.

US President Barack Obama condemned a “brutal” and “vicious murder” and urged a probe while British Prime Minister David Cameron said the “callous murder” must be investigated “fully, rapidly and transparently”.

Russia Opposition Leader Killed Opposition leader and former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov at the scene. Source: Pavel Golovkin/AP/PA

‘Provocation’ 

Putin suggested the crime was aimed at smearing the authorities.

It “had all the hallmarks of a contract killing and is entirely provocative in nature,” he was quoted as saying by the Kremlin.

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also claimed the killing was aimed at “destabilising the situation in the country, at heightening confrontation” with the West.

The powerful Investigative Committee leading the probe said it was looking into a possible “provocation to destabilise the political situation in the country.”

It listed as initial hypotheses a link to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, noting that Nemtsov had received threats after he condemned the killings in Paris, as well as the “situation inside Ukraine”.

Hours before his murder, Nemtsov urged Russians to show up for a rally calling for “an immediate end to the Ukraine war,” he said on popular Echo of Moscow radio, adding that Putin should quit.

Opposition activists scrapped the rally after news of his death while the authorities gave permission for a march in memory of Nemtsov through the city centre tomorrow afternoon.

Russia Opposition Leader Killed People light candles at monument of political prisoners 'Solovetsky Stone' in central St.Petersburg. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Opposition leader

After leaving parliament in 2003, he led several opposition parties and groups.

A passionate orator with a rock star image and popular with women, Nemtsov was a key speaker at mass opposition rallies against Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.

He wrote a series of reports critical of corruption and misspending under Putin.

In 2013, he said up to $30 billion of the estimated $50 billion assigned to the Olympic Games that Russia was to host in Sochi had gone missing.

The Kremlin has denied the claims.

- © AFP 2015.

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