KYIV, UKRAINE - Police in Kyiv say Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who fled his country to escape what he called "political harassment," has been shot dead in a killing Ukraine's prime minister blamed on Moscow.
Babchenko was apparently shot in the back on the doorstep of his Kyiv apartment Tuesday after shopping for food, Ukrainian authorities said.
The 41-year-old's death stunned colleagues and added to tension between Moscow and Kyiv, whose ties have been badly damaged by Russia's seizure of Crimea and backing for separatist militants in a devastating war in eastern Ukraine.
Kyiv Police Chief Andriy Krishchenko said in televised comments late Tuesday that police are assuming Babchenko was targeted for his work. "The first and the most obvious version is his professional activities," he said.
In a post to Facebook just hours after news of Babchenko's death emerged, Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman said: "I am convinced that the Russian totalitarian machine could not forgive his honesty and principled position."
But in Moscow, Russia's Investigative Committee distanced the Kremlin from the killing, saying it had launched its own criminal investigation into Babchenko's death.
"The Russian Investigative Committee is not going to ignore brutal crimes against Russian citizens," committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement to "demand the Ukrainian authorities do everything in their power for an immediate investigation," adding that Moscow hopes "the relevant international agencies and nongovernmental organizations will take the investigation process under their control."
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the accusation of Russian responsibility for Babchenko's killing is regretful.
Kyiv police spokeswoman Oksana Blyschyk said police received an emergency call Tuesday from doctors who said a woman had called them to say she "found her husband at home in a pool of blood."
Ukrainian parliamentary deputy Anton Heraschenko, who is also an aide to Ukraine's interior minister, said Babchenko had just returned home from a nearby grocery store and was opening his apartment door when an assailant waiting in the stairwell shot him multiple times in the back.
"Arkady's heart stopped in the ambulance on the way to the hospital" in Kyiv, Heraschenko said in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile, in an indication that at least one witness saw the assailant, police in Kyiv late Tuesday released a sketch of a chief suspect.
Babchenko was well-known for his criticism of the Kremlin.
His reporting about Russia's support for pro-Russia separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine saw him become the target of severe criticism from Russian state media and from Russian officials.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's media watchdog condemned Babchenko's slaying and called for swift justice for the killer.
"I am outraged by this horrific act," the OSCE's media freedom representative, Harlem Désir, said in a statement. "I call on the authorities to swiftly and thoroughly investigate the circumstances of this assassination and to bring the perpetrators and those who ordered it to justice."
The media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists also called for a thorough investigation "to find those responsible for this brutal, silencing crime."
"Babchenko was well-known for his critical journalism, and authorities must consider his murder as an attack on press freedom," Nina Ognianova, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia coordinator, said in a statement.
Babchenko told RFE/RL in December 2016 that "all of the elements" of Russia's state "propaganda machine" were engaged against him after he posted comments to Facebook about the crash of a Russian military plane in the Black Sea.
All 92 people on board were killed, including members of the Russian army's renowned choir, the Aleksandrov Ensemble, which was traveling to give a performance for Russian troops in Syria.
Babchenko said the reaction by state officials and state media to his remarks was intended to send a signal to Russian society that "we must be in one line; we must express sadness; we must appear sad — and anyone who doesn't must be destroyed."
'Forced to flee'
Babchenko told RFE/RL in late 2016 that State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov, Federation Council member Frants Klintsevich and Russia media like Channel One and Lifenews were "stitching together some fake news" about him.
Babchenko said: "A major effort is being organized. They aren't investigating why the plane crashed but instead are persecuting me."
In February 2017, writing for Britain's The Guardian newspaper, Babchenko said: "I can tell you what political harassment feels like in [President Vladimir] Putin's Russia. Like many dissidents I am used to abuse, but a recent campaign against me was so personal, so scary, that I was forced to flee."
Babchenko served in the Russia army during the first separatist war in Chechnya in the 1990s before he became a journalist.
He worked as a military correspondent and wrote for several Russian media organizations, including the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily newspaper and Novaya Gazeta, as well as TV Tsentr, and Channel One TV.
He had been scathingly critical of the Kremlin in recent years. He moved to Kyiv in the autumn of 2017, where he worked as a host for the Crimean Tatar TV station, ATR.
Babchenko is the second high-profile Russian journalist to be slain in Kyiv in less than two years.
Authorities in Ukraine are still investigating the killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in a car-bomb blast in central Kyiv in July 2016.
Sheremet, a Belarusian-born Russian citizen who made Kyiv his permanent home, was well-known as a hard-hitting reporter and commentator who had worked at prominent media outlets in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine during his decades-long career.
Often critical of political leaders, he had received threats and been harassed on several occasions.
RFE/RL's Kyiv correspondent Christopher Miller, Reuters, AP, AFP, Interfax, and TASS contributed to this report.