CNN  — 

New evidence shows that three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic last year were victims of a well-planned ambush involving a senior police officer with shadowy Russian connections – and they were tracked from the moment they arrived in the country.

The three journalists – Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal – went to CAR in July 2018 to investigate the activities of Russian private military contractors. Their intention was to find out how the contractors were involved in exploiting the CAR’s mineral wealth.

The trio were shot dead after the vehicle in which they were traveling was attacked on a remote road in the volatile country. Their fate has cast a spotlight on a growing Russian presence in Africa, involving the Kremlin, private companies with ties to to President Vladimir Putin and large shipments of weapons.

The official explanation of their death is that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims of bandits or rebels. But that story never quite added up. Nothing of value was taken from their vehicle, their driver survived unscathed, and investigations remain incomplete.

Now, six months later, there is evidence that far from being the victims of a random attack, the murder of the trio was carefully planned.

The day they were killed, their driver was in regular communication with a senior CAR police officer, according to call logs seen by CNN. That officer followed the journalists in another vehicle as they drove north from Bangui, the capital of CAR. A major in the national gendarmerie, the officer is closely connected with Russian contractors working in the country, many of whom work closely with both the Russian government and Russian companies active in CAR. CNN has approached the CAR national gendarmerie for comment; it has yet to respond.

The journalists were in CAR on a trip sponsored by the Center for Investigation – a now-closed online news outfit funded by exiled Russian businessman and Putin critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I want the people who were involved in this tragedy to be interrogated and charged,” Khodorkovsky told a news conference in London on Thursday. “We believe that the Russian authorities should do this. They have every opportunity to interrogate people in Russia and also people in the CAR.”

A fatal mistake

The trio arrived in CAR from Casablanca on July 28. Two days later they set out from Bangui in a blue-gray Mitsubishi 4 x 4 with a local driver. They were planning to visit a goldmine near Bambari that had recently been taken over by a Russian company – some 400km away. By dusk they’d only reached the town of Sibut – about halfway there. But instead of continuing east towards Bambari, they headed north towards a town called Dékoa.

Just why they took that road, and why they travelled after dark, against the advice of local officials, is still unknown. Whatever the reason, their detour proved fatal. The UN says their vehicle was ambushed and they were shot dead in a remote area some 25km from Sibut.

An independent autopsy carried out in Moscow found that one of the journalists, Orkhan Dzhemal, was shot a total of five times.

According to local officials, the driver claimed the vehicle had been stopped by men wearing turbans and speaking Arabic – even though the area is far south of any Arabic-speaking region.

Khodorkovsky’s staff in London, who launched an extensive investigation into the circumstances of the murder, say that most of the journalists’ equipment, including fuel and backpacks, was left untouched.

The Mitsubishi 4x4 that carried the journalists from Bangui, its rear window smashed by bullets.