BERLIN - German authorities said Wednesday they suspect that Russian agents were behind an execution-style killing in Berlin in the summer and expelled two Russian diplomats in connection with the case.
The federal public prosecutor said there was "sufficient factual evidence" that the Aug. 23 murder was carried out by Russian intelligence agencies or those of Russia's Chechen Republic.
The German Foreign Ministry declared two employees of the Russian Embassy in Berlin "persona non gratae," saying that Russian authorities have not cooperated with the investigation "sufficiently" despite repeated "high-ranking" requests.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the accusation of Russian involvement in the murder, describing it as "absolutely groundless." The Russian Foreign Ministry called the expulsions "unfounded and unfriendly."
"Such a politicized approach to investigation is unacceptable," it said in a statement, according to Russia's government-owned Tass news agency. "We will be forced to take tit-for-tat steps."
The threat of escalation underscored the potential for the incident to stymie relations between Berlin and Moscow, a fragile bond for Germany, which tries to balance political differences against its energy needs. Russia has been accused of carrying out numerous assassinations of political opponents overseas in the past, but the Berlin killing - if Russian involvement is proved - would represent the first such slaying on German soil since the end of the Cold War.
Berlin prosecutors named the victim, who was shot in the head in a central Berlin park, as "Tornike K." - a 40-year-old Russian-Georgian citizen who was designated a "terrorist" by Moscow for his role in armed conflict with Russia. He also used the alias Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. Between 2000 and 2004, he commanded a Chechen militia that fought Russian forces during the Russian-Chechen war, the German prosecutor said in a statement.
The slain man also fought with a Georgian unit defending South Ossetia during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, the statement said.
He survived a 2015 assassination attempt, despite being shot four times, and later fled to Germany, where he claimed asylum.
According to German press reports, he was tailed by a man on an electric bicycle before being shot with a Glock-26 pistol. German authorities arrested a man identified as Vadim Sokolov on suspicion of murder shortly afterward. He was traveling on a Russian passport that authorities said they believed was genuine, but they suspected that his identity was not.
The investigative website Bellingcat reported Tuesday that Sokolov's real name is Vadim Krasikov. The German prosecutor also said it was "highly likely that they are one and the same person," based on photographic comparisons.
Krasikov was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by Russian authorities in 2014 for a murder a year prior in Moscow - a killing that bore hallmarks similar to the Berlin assassination. The killer also approached the victim on a bicycle. Russian authorities later amended and then deleted the wanted notice.
"The findings that the Russian state terminated domestic and international search warrants for Vadim Krasikov, and then facilitated the issuance of a new, false identity to the same person, provides further convincing evidence that the Russian state was involved in the planning and facilitation, if not gave the mandate for the assassination of a foreign citizen on German territory," Bellingcat said.
Sergey Nechayev, the Russian ambassador in Berlin, said Moscow was "deeply disappointed" by the approach of the Germans.
"There was no evidence of Russian government involvement in this incident," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would take "a little time" to decide its countermeasures in response to the expulsions. "We are thoughtful people and will first study what we have been accused of and why in the world all this happened," he said.
Speaking before Germany announced the expulsion of the diplomats, Peskov said he did not believe the issue would cast a pall over a meeting next week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Last year, Germany expelled four diplomats following the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, southern England. It was part of a wave of coordinated European and NATO expulsions after British authorities concluded that Moscow was responsible. Skripal and his daughter survived the attack, which was carried out with a Russian-developed nerve agent. Russia denied any involvement.
The diplomatic fallout with Russia from the Berlin assassination could be particularly sensitive for Germany, which is attempting to increase imports of cheap Russian natural gas to meet targets of weaning itself off coal. The United States has been vociferously opposed to Nord Stream 2, a controversial new gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, as it would deepen European dependence on Russian energy.
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Dixon reported from Moscow. The Washington Post’s Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.