By Vladimir Isachenkov
ASSOCIATED PRESS

1:21 p.m. March 6, 2007

MOSCOW – A journalist who plunged to his death from his apartment building window faced threats while reporting on a highly sensitive story that Russia planned to sell sophisticated missiles to Syria and Iran, his newspaper reported Tuesday.
Ivan Safronov, a military affairs writer for the daily Kommersant, died Friday after plunging from a stairwell window between the fourth and fifth stories.

Kommersant reported Tuesday that Safronov had told his editors he was working on a story about Russian plans to sell weapons to Iran and Syria via Belarus.
The deals, if concluded, could upset the balance of power in the Middle East and strain Russia's relations with Israel and the United States, which have strongly objected to earlier Russian weapons sales to the two countries.

Kommersant reported that Safronov, 51, had recently told colleagues he was warned he would face a criminal investigation for possibly releasing state secrets if he reported allegations that Russia had struck a deal to supply Iskander missiles to Syria.

“Ivan Safronov said he was not going to write about it for a while because he was warned that it would create a huge international scandal and the FSB (Federal Security Service) would launch a criminal case on charges of breaching state secrets,” the newspaper said.

Safronov did not say where the warning came from, according to Kommersant, but he had repeatedly been questioned by the FSB – the KGB's main successor agency – which suspected him of divulging state secrets.

A spokeswoman for state arms trading monopoly Rosoboronexport refused to comment on the Kommersant report.

Independent analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who knew Safronov and met with him shortly before his death, said deals with Iran and Syria would be sensitive enough to lead to Safronov's killing.

“It's quite probable that such deals have been signed, and it's also probable that he (Safronov) was killed because of that,” Felgenhauer told The Associated Press.

In the face of sharp U.S. and Israeli criticism, Moscow has delivered 29 Tor-M1 mobile surface-to-air missile systems to Iran under a $700 million contract, and Russian news reports have said Iran was pushing to buy the much more potent, long-range S-300 air defense missile systems.

Kommersant reported that, before traveling to an international arms fair in the United Arab Emirates last month, Safronov had said he would try to confirm rumors that Russia planned to sell S-300 missiles to Iran and Su-30 fighter jets to Syria via Belarus. He later called the editors from Abu Dhabi and said he had confirmation from Russian officials who attended the exhibit, the paper said.

Upon his return, Safronov told colleagues he also had learned about Russia's plans to provide Syria with Iskander missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsyr-S1 air defense systems, the newspaper reported.

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 very high precision. Israel has complained strongly about past sales of anti-tank missiles to Syria, saying some landed in the hands of the militant group Hezbollah.

A 2005 Kommersant report about planned sales of Iskander missiles to Syria caused an uproar and Putin later said during a trip to Israel that he had blocked the deal, the newspaper reported.

Felgenhauer told the AP the Iskander is in a different league than North Korean-built Scud missiles in Syria's inventory.

“The Syrians always wanted to get Iskander missiles,” he said. “Iskander would give the Syrians a capability to strike point targets, like the military general staff building in Tel Aviv.”

Felgenhauer said Russia previously conducted shadowy weapons sales through Belarus, so the allegations that it could serve as a conduit for Russian weapons sales to Iran and Syria were plausible.

Vladimir Nesterovich, a top official with Belarus' Security Council, said the allegations were “pure provocation.” He added: “Those who are disseminating this false information are making the latest attempt to discredit Belarus in the eyes of the international community.”

However, former Belarusian Defense Minister Pavel Kozlovsky said Russia had long used Belarus as conduit for weapons to suspect regimes. “This scheme has been used for the last 10 years or so. Earlier, Belarus supplied weapons to (Saddam) Hussein and Iraq,” he said.

Safronov, a colonel in the Russian Space Forces before joining Kommersant in 1997, frequently angered authorities with his critical reporting. Kommersant and other media described him as a cheerful person who would not take his own life and suggested foul play.

Felgenhauer said a Russian military affairs writer whom he refused to name was brutally beaten by Russian military intelligence agents several years ago over his report on arms sales.

“I also feel scared since I'm writing about similar subjects,” he said.

Prosecutors have said nothing about the incident, except that they are investigating it as a suicide.

The death comes amid a rash of attacks on journalists who write about official corruption, Chechnya and other abuses and amid fears that, under Putin, Russia has is backsliding toward authoritarianism.

Investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic, was shot dead in Moscow in October. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that 13 journalists have been killed in contract-style murders since Putin took office in 2000.

“Given this terrible record, Safronov's sensitive beat and the questions surrounding his death, we call on Moscow authorities to thoroughly investigate every lead, including foul play,” Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon said.



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