Ukraine prosecutors welcome Kuchma's offer to meet with investigators

Ukrainian prosecutors want to talk to former President Leonid Kuchma as part of their investigation into the brutal killing of a journalist nearly five years ago, the Prosecutor General's Office said Wednesday. Kuchma's opponents have accused him of involvement in the slaying of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was abducted in Kiev 2000. Gongadze's decapitated body was found more than a month later. Vyacheslav Astapov, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said prosecutors had noted Kuchma's comments to Ukrainian television last week that he was willing to talk to investigators. Asked if they were interested in talking to the former president, Astapov said: "without doubt." He emphasized, however, that no time or date had been set, and he said it would be up to the investigative team to decide what to do if Kuchma doesn't voluntarily turn up for questioning or whether to officially summon the former leader. Kuchma's spokeswoman, Olena Hromnitska, said she had no information about what Kuchma planned to do. Gongadze's slaying and the release of secret recordings that allegedly implicate Kuchma sparked massive street protests and became a rallying cry that helped unite the opposition in this ex-Soviet republic. President Viktor Yushchenko, whose December's victory ushered the opposition into power, has said that solving Gongadze's slaying would be a matter of honor for him and his administration. Asked whether the case could reach as high up as Kuchma, Yushchenko said during a visit to Berlin that "everyone is equal before the law in Ukraine," his press office said Wednesday. Kuchma has denied all allegations against him, and has questioned the authenticity of the secret tapes allegedly recorded by his former bodyguard Mykola Melnichenko. The Gongadze case which long sat dormant under the former administration has proceeded at breakneck speed since Yushchenko came into office. Astapov said Wednesday that prosecutors charged two former police officials with murder in connection with Gongadze's death. Both were detained earlier this month, and charges were filed Monday. Another police official suspected of involvement remains under orders not to leave Kiev, and a fourth, senior police official Oleksiy Pukach, is being sought on an international warrant, Astapov said. Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun said last week that investigators also knew who had ordered the journalist's killing, but he refused to reveal that person's identity. On Friday, Former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko believed to be a central figure in the case was found dead with two gunshot wounds to the head hours before investigators were due to question him. Authorities have said Kravchenko killed himself, leaving a note proclaiming his innocence and saying he had fallen "victim to the intrigues of (former) President Leonid Kuchma and his entourage." In Melnichenko's alleged recordings, the former president and Kravchenko are heard repeatedly complaining about Gongadze's reports and their concerns about who was funding his Internet site. Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko traveled to Warsaw this week to meet with Melnichenko, who fled Ukraine after revealing his recordings and was later granted political asylum in the United States. Melnichenko confirmed he was ready to return to Ukraine and present evidence to help the investigation, said Tomenko's spokeswoman, Yuliya Tsarenko. Meanwhile, a poll released Wednesday by the Kiev-based Razumkov think-tank showed that 35.3 percent of Ukrainians believe Kuchma should be put on trial, while 44.9 percent believe the former president should be allowed to "leave public life and politics." The poll of 2,010 people was conducted last month and had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points. Associated Press

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