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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s top investigative body said Saturday it is looking into several possible motives for the killing of prominent opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and his personal life.

A statement from the body, the Investigative Committee, did not address the possibility seen as likely by many of Nemtsov’s supporters — that he was killed for being one of President Vladimir Putin’s most adamant and visible critics. The 55-year-old Nemtsov was gunned down Friday near midnight as he walked on a bridge near the Kremlin with a female companion. The killing came just a few hours after a radio interview in which he denounced Putin’s “mad, aggressive” policies and the day before he was to help lead a rally protesting Russia’s actions in the Ukraine crisis and the economic crisis at home.

After his death, organizers canceled the rally and instead called for a demonstration to mourn him on Sunday in central Moscow. The city gave quick approval for that gathering, in contrast to its usual slow and grudging permission for opposition rallies.

The Investigative Committee said it was looking into whether Nemtsov had been killed as a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals,” a suggestion echoing the comments by Putin’s spokesman and other Russian politicians that the attack was a “provocation” against the state.

It also said it was considering whether there was “personal enmity” toward him in his domestic life. State-controlled TV and Kremlin-friendly media outlets on Saturday gave considerable attention to Nemtsov’s companion, identifying her as a Ukrainian model 30 years his junior and showing photos of her in alluring poses. The Investigative Committee said the pair were headed for Nemtsov’s apartment.

The statement also said it was investigating whether the killing was connected to the Ukraine conflict, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since last April, or whether there was a connection to Islamic extremism.

Nemtsov had been one of Putin’s most visible critics and his death hit other members of the opposition hard. The mourning march on Sunday could serve to galvanize the beleaguered and marginalized opposition, or it could prove to be a brief catharsis after which emotions dissipate.

Through the morning, hundreds of people came to the site of Nemtsov’s death to lay flowers.

Nemtsov was working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved Russia’s direct involvement in the separatist rebellion that has raged in eastern Ukraine since April. Moscow denies backing the rebels with troops and sophisticated weapons.

Putin ordered Russia’s top law enforcement chiefs to personally oversee the investigation of Nemtsov’s killing.

“Putin noted that this cruel murder has all the makings of a contract hit and is extremely provocative,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

President Barack Obama said the Russian people “lost lost one of the most dedicated and eloquent defenders of their rights.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised Nemtsov’s courage in criticizing Kremlin policies, and urged Putin to insure that the killers are brought to justice, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev echoed the suggestion that the killing was a provocation. “It’s an attempt to push the situation into complications, maybe even to destabilizing the situation in the country,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov agreed. “It’s a provocation; for big fires, sacrificial figures are necessary,” Interfax quoted him as saying.

Nemtsov frequently assailed the government’s inefficiency, rampant corruption and Ukraine policy.

In an interview with the Sobesednik newspaper, Nemtsov said earlier this month that his 86-year old mother was afraid that Putin could have him killed. Asked if he had such fears himself, he responded: “If I were afraid I wouldn’t have led an opposition party.”

Speaking on radio just a few hours before his death, he accused Putin of plunging Russia into crisis by his “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine.”

Kasyanov, the former prime minister, said he was shocked.

“In the 21st century, a leader of the opposition is being demonstratively shot just outside the walls of the Kremlin!”.

“This is a monstrous tragedy and a loss for us all,” Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, said on his Facebook page. He is currently on a 15-day jail sentence for handing out leaflets without authorization.

“The country is rolling into the abyss,” Kasyanov, the former prime minister, told reporters as Nemtsov’s body, placed in a plastic bag, was removed on a rainy and cold night, as the Kremlin bells chimed nearby.

Nemtsov served as a regional governor and then a deputy prime minister in the 1990s and once was seen as a possible successor to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first elected president.

Nemtsov was widely liked for his good humor, larger-than-life character and quick wit, but he and other top opposition figures long have been purged from state television and steadily marginalized by the Kremlin.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Laura Mills in Moscow and Jake Pearson in New York contributed to this report.


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Residents in a remote area of southern Missouri are trying to come to grips with what could cause a man to kill seven people, including four of his own relatives, in a nighttime shooting spree that spanned four homes.

The shooter, identified by authorities as 36-year-old Joseph Jesse Aldridge, used a .45-caliber handgun to kill two people each at three homes, one person at another, and then himself, in a reign of violence that began late Thursday night. All of the victims lived in or near the tiny, unincorporated town of Tyrone in the rolling hills of Missouri’s Ozarks region, about 40 miles from the Arkansas border. All of the victims were adults.

Texas County Sheriff James Sigman said people generally have felt safe in small towns like Tyrone.

“Start locking your doors,” the sheriff said. “The world’s changing.

The motive for the shooting was still under investigation Friday. The few people in town willing to talk about it knew little about Aldridge, described as somewhat reclusive in an otherwise tight-knit area. Some said they’d seen him around and talked to him, but not enough to form an opinion.

Bud Goodman, 71, of nearby Houston, grew up in Tyrone. He knew all of the victims but little about Aldridge.

“I just don’t know what he was doing,” Goodman said.

Police are still trying to figure that out, too. Around 10:15 p.m. Thursday, a 15-year-old girl, wearing only a nightgown and no shoes in near-zero temperatures and with cuts on her legs from running through thickets and hardened snow, pounded on a neighbor’s door.

“She was crying so hard,” the neighbor, who declined to be identified out of concern for his safety, said. “I finally got out of her, ‘My mom and dad have been shot.'”

The girl called 911 from the neighbor’s home. Sigman said that as officers responded to that call, they received word of another shooting.

The victims at both addresses were related to each other, and to Aldridge. Authorities identified them as two couples, Garold Dee Aldridge, 52, and his wife, Julie Ann, 47; and Harold Wayne Aldridge, 50, and his wife, Janell Arlisa, 48. Both men were cousins of Joseph Aldridge, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeff Kinder.

At some point over the next few hours, Joseph Aldridge killed two more men and another woman at two different locations, Sigman said, and injured another woman. Names of those victims, and details about the woman’s injuries, were not released.

The case took another strange twist when authorities went to the home that Joseph Aldridge shared with his 74-year-old mother, Alice. She was found dead at the home, but apparently of natural causes, authorities said. An autopsy was planned to determine if her death was related to the shooting spree.

She had been under a doctor’s care and appeared to have been dead at least 24 hours, Texas County Coroner Tom Whittaker told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Whittaker speculated that the son “came home and found her deceased and then for whatever reason went on a rampage and started killing people.”

Sigman said many of the residents of Tyrone are Aldridges. Police, worried that other relatives might be targeted, reached out to all of them, along with family members in other towns, while they searched for Joseph Aldridge in the early hours of Friday. Sigman said he was confident there were no more victims.

Authorities also alerted everyone else in town about the gunman. Jerry Logsdon, who lives near two of the shooting scenes, was awakened by state troopers at 3:30 a.m. “I thought they were going to tell me my cattle escaped,” he said. “They said, ‘There’s been a shooting.'”

Around 5:30 a.m. Friday, in neighboring Shannon County, some 25 miles from Tyrone, Joseph Aldridge was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted wound inside a GMC pickup. Sigman said the truck was running and in the middle of a two-lane highway.

Around town, Aldridge was described as a recluse, and it was unclear what, if anything, he did for a living.

Vernetta Lucille Swartz, 76, Joseph Aldridge’s aunt, lives in Hesperia, Calif., but said the family is grief-stricken.

“Two of my nephews and wives were shot, and I guess another nephew was the shooter,” she said.


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By Alexander Winning and Katya Golubkova
MOSCOW, Feb 28 (Reuters) – Thousands of stunned Russians laid flowers and lit candles on Saturday on the bridge where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin, a murder that showed the risks of speaking out against President Vladimir Putin.
Nemtsov, 55, was shot four times in the back by assailants in a white car as he walked across the bridge over the Moskva River in central Moscow with a Ukrainian woman, who was unhurt, just before midnight on Friday, police said.
Police sealed off the blood-stained bridge close to the red walls of the Kremlin and Red Square for two hours overnight, then hosed it down as people came to pay tribute to one of Putin’s biggest opponents over Russia’s role in Ukraine.
Flowers were piled at least a meter (three feet) high, about two meters deep and two meters wide. A piece of white paper saying “We are all Nemtsov” stood among the flowers.
“People are afraid to support our movement. Opposition activists receive threats every day and Boris was no exception. But they won’t stop us,” said opposition activist Mark Galperin.
A former deputy prime minister who had feared he would be murdered, Nemtsov was the most prominent opposition figure killed in Putin’s 15-year rule.
His gangland-style killing was reminiscent of the chaotic 1990s after the Communist Soviet Union collapsed and raised further questions about the opposition’s ability to mount any challenge to Putin in such a dangerous environment.
The Kremlin deflected accusations that it was to blame and Putin called for the killers to be found quickly, taking the investigation under presidential control and denouncing what he said was a “provocation” before an opposition protest on Sunday.
But the killing focused attention on the tough treatment of opponents in Putin’s third term, during which several leading critics have been jailed or have fled the country following mass rallies against the president, a former KGB spy, three years ago.
“That a leader of the opposition could be shot beside the walls of the Kremlin is beyond imagination. There can be only one version: that he was shot for telling the truth,” Mikhail Kasyanov, an opposition leader and a former prime minister under Putin, said at the scene.
There was no claim of responsibility, though police were following several lines of inquiry and looking at surveillance camera footage in one of Moscow’s busiest and most guarded areas. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“Certain forces will try to use the killing to their own advantage. They are thinking how to get rid of Putin,” he said.
Leading international condemnation of the murder, U.S. President Barack Obama called for a prompt, impartial and transparent investigation to ensure those responsible were brought to justice for the “vicious killing.”
Some opposition figures blamed the Kremlin directly. Others depicted Russian society as in moral decline, describing an environment where Putin demands total loyalty and supporters go to great lengths to do what they think may please him.
“In Putin’s atmosphere of hatred and violence, abroad and in Russia, bloodshed is the prerequisite to show loyalty, that you are on the team,” another opposition leader, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, said on Twitter.
“If Putin gave (the) order to murder Boris Nemtsov is not the point. It is Putin’s dictatorship. His 24/7 propaganda about enemies of the state.”

ANONYMOUS THREATS
Nemtsov, who had been out walking on Great Moskvoretsky Bridge after a meal in a restaurant by Red Square, had said in a recent interview he was concerned that the president might want him dead over his opposition to the conflict in Ukraine.
“Boris periodically received anonymous threats on social networking sites … Boris was worried,” said opposition politician Ilya Yashin.
Sunday’s opposition march is intended to protest against the war in east Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have seized a swathe of territory. Kiev, the West and some Russians accuse Moscow of sending troops to support the rebels, an accusation Russia has repeatedly denied.
Tall, with a mop of black curly hair that had started to turn grey, Nemtsov often dressed casually in big sweaters and was known for booming speeches criticizing Putin at rallies.
Organizers of Sunday’s march were divided after Nemtsov’s death over whether to hold the rally or turn it into a demonstration of mourning in central Moscow. Some feared it could end in violence if police acted with a heavy hand.
Police said they were following several lines of inquiry, including a possible attack to destabilize the political situation in Russia or an attack by radical Islamists on a well-known Jew, but political murders often go unsolved in Russia.

OPPOSITION AT CROSSROADS
Nemtsov’s criticism of Putin won him support among Moscow’s intellectuals and the nascent middle class but he had little support outside the big cities.
Another opposition figure, Ksenia Sobchak, said Nemtsov had been preparing a report on the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.
Nemtsov was a fighter against corruption. In other reports, he condemned overspending on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics by the Russian authorities and listed the many state buildings, helicopters and planes that Putin has at his disposal.
He was also one of the leaders of the rallies in the winter of 2011-12 that became the biggest protests against Putin since he first rose to power in 2000.
Nemtsov briefly served as a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s, when he gained a reputation as a leading liberal economic reformer.
The opposition has failed to dent Putin’s popularity even though many people feel the pain of Western economic sanctions over Ukraine, low oil prices and poor economic management.
Opposition blogger Alexei Navalny is serving a 15-day jail term, preventing him attending Sunday’s march. Kasparov is based in the United States and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, freed in late 2013 after a decade in jail, lives in Switzerland.
Some opponents say they fear for their lives. Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist, was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment on Putin’s birthday in 2006. The person who ordered the killing has never been identified. (Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Denis Dyomkin, Polina Devitt and Thomas Grove, and by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Janet Lawrence)


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Russia Opposition Leader Killed

Russia’s top investigative body is looking into several possible motives for the killing of prominent opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, including a number of theories that the Kremlin’s critics regard as attempts to obscure the truth.