Friends of a journalist who reported on Russia's "shadow army" in Syria have raised suspicions about his death falling from a balcony as local authorities insisted there were no indications of foul play.
Maksim Borodin, 32, died yesterday from injuries sustained in a plunge from his five-storey balcony in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, on April 12.
He had reported extensively for the news service Novy Den about the deaths of Russian mercenaries from the secretive Wagner group in US airstrikes in Syria in February.
While Vladimir Putin's Government admitted Russians had died, it insisted they were private citizens, despite mounting evidence that the Wagner group has served as the Defence Ministry's de facto shock troops in Syria.
"There are no grounds for launching a case," the regional investigative committee told the TASS state news agency today, in reference to Borodin's death. "Several versions are being considered, including that this was an unfortunate accident, but there is no sign a crime has been committed."
A friend of Borodin, however, told the Daily Telegraph that the authorities had so far failed to look into the odd circumstances of his death.
According to local activist Vyacheslav Bashkov, Borodin had called on April 11 and asked for help finding a lawyer, saying masked, armed men on his balcony and in the stairwell were preparing to raid his flat.
He called several lawyers and journalists, but Borodin later phoned back and said he had been mistaken, and it had probably been a security exercise.
After he heard his friend was in the hospital, Bashkov told the police about the call, but he said they didn't question him further. Police haven't contacted the lawyers and journalists he had called, he added.
"I think it's suspicious that those who spoke with Borodin the day before April 12 haven't been questioned," he said. "And of course many think that Maksim's death could have been linked to his publications about Syria and the Wagner private military company, but we can't assert anything until after the results of the pre-investigation probe have been announced."
Another friend of Borodin, Paulina Andreyevna, said the week before his fall, he was treated in a hospital after unknown assailants attacked and hit him in the head as he left his flat block. He had also been assaulted in October.
She didn't believe his death was an accident or suicide. Borodin planned to leave Yekaterinburg in May to move to either Kurgan, where he had been offered a job as editor of a local media outlet, or Moscow, where his fiancee was working, she said.
"I don't think it was an accident. He was always getting into scrapes because he loved crime news," she said, referring to his reporting on local criminal activity.
On February 7, American forces launched devastating airstrikes on a column of men and armour moving toward an oilfield near Deir Ezzor, Syria, where US special forces were present. It was the first deadly clash between Americans and Russians since the Vietnam War.
Borodin did several reports on mercenaries from near Yekaterinburg who had been killed, last attending a funeral of two of them in March.
The Foreign Ministry later admitted that "several dozen" Russian citizens had died but no regular soldiers.
Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA and Donald Trump's pick to become secretary of state said last week a "couple hundred Russians" were killed in the strikes.
The believed leader of the Wagner group is an employee of Yevgeny Prigozhin, "Putin's chef" who was indicted by US investigators in February for running a troll factory that interfered in the 2016 election.