Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic, and reported to be probing a private Russian army there, were shot dead at a roadblock by a nine-man group, the government said Wednesday.
In a statement on national television, government spokesman Ange Maxime Kazagui said the nine "wore headscarves" and did not speak in French or Sango, two languages that are nationally used in the CAR.
One of the journalists violently opposed the armed men, who wanted to steal their equipment, Kazagui said.
One of the journalists died instantly and the two others died of their wounds, he said.
These details come from their driver, who was wounded but survived, he added.
The three are Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal, the Russian foreign minister confirmed earlier.
A Russian investigative media organisation said the trio had been working with it in a probe into the so-called Wagner Group -- described as Moscow's shadow army in hotspots such as Syria and Ukraine.
"On Friday, July 27 (they) flew to the Central African Republic to shoot material on the activities of PMC Wagner in the country as part of a joint project with the Investigations Management Centre," the centre wrote on its Facebook page late Tuesday.
The Investigations Management Centre is a media project launched by exiled former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in jail in Russia after falling foul of the Kremlin and now lives in Britain.
Analysts say Moscow uses Wagner, a private company, in order to play down military activity in countries such as Syria and Ukraine and discount casualties.
An investigation into the incident has been opened by CAR and Russian federal authorities and the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA.
- Road danger -
The killings took place on Monday north of the central town of Sibut, located on the main highway between Kaga Bandora and the capital Bangui, a MINUSCA source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The trio had arrived in Sibut from Bangui earlier Monday.
They then set out for Dekoa, north of Sibut, at 5.45pm, even though they had been advised not to venture out on the road so late, the source said.
A journalist who was investigating Wagner's activities in Syria in April died after falling from the balcony of his fifth-floor flat in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.
But Kazagui said it was "very plausible" that the three journalists had been killed by "a roadblock team who belong to an armed group".
"They took risks that, in my view, were badly underestimated."
Roadblocks are a notorious form of revenue-raising for the militia groups which control most of the CAR.
On Wednesday, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said neither the journalists themselves nor those who were backing their trip had told Russian authorities they would be in the country.
"They declared tourism as the purpose of their trip," she told the state channel Russia 24 -- an account that was supported by Kazagui.
"The process of identification has been complicated by the fact that the dead Russians were not carrying their passports on them," she added.
Historically the major international player in CAR has been France.
However, Russia has taken on an official role since December last year, when it was authorised by the UN to provide the armed forces with weapons and training.