[UPDATED 3/6/07]

So wrote the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday after news of the death of Ivan Safronov. The Associated Press reports:

Safronov, who had served as a colonel in the Russian Space Forces before joining Kommersant in 1997, frequently angered authorities with his critical reporting and was repeatedly questioned by the Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency, which suspected him of divulging state secrets. No charges were ever filed because Safronov was able to prove his reports were based on open sources, Kommersant said.

With prosecutors investigating the death, Kommersant and some other media suggested foul play.

“The suicide theory has become dominant in the investigation, but all those who knew Ivan Safronov categorically reject it,” Kommersant wrote in an article Monday.

According to the newspaper, the 51-year-old’s hat was found on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors, along with a spilled bag of oranges. His apartment was on the third floor.

Safronov’s colleagues and relatives have described him as a strong, cheerful person who would be extremely unlikely to kill himself.

In December, Safronov angered the authorities when he was the first to report the third consecutive launch failure of the new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile, which President
Vladimir Putin had hailed as a basis of the nation’s nuclear might for years to come. Authorities never acknowledged the launch failure.

The report goes on to note that the Russian Federation is one of the most dangerous places for reporters.

These developments are particularly interesting given growing rumors about rogue hardliners in the FSB attempting to force Putin’s hand, the uncertain status of the succession, and other issues in what we might call the emerging discipline of “neo-Kremlinology.”

Today the AP reports that Safronov was working on a story concerning sales of advanced weaponry to Iran and Syria.

Upon his return from the trip, it said, Safronov told colleagues that he also had learned about Russian plans to provide Syria with Iskander missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsyr-S1 air defense systems.

The Iskander, a sophisticated surface-to-surface missile with a range of 175 miles, would give Syria the capability to strike targets in Israel with high precision. Israel has complained about past sales of anti-tank missiles to Syria, saying that some landed in the hands of the militant group Hezbollah.

A spokeswoman for the Rosoboronexport state arms trading monopoly refused to comment on Kommersant’s report on the alleged weapons deals.

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