MOSCOW, March 4 -- Ukraine's former interior minister was found dead Friday morning in an apparent suicide just hours before he was to meet with prosecutors looking into the September 2000 killing of an investigative reporter.
The gangland-style slaying of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, 31, whose decapitated body was found in a forest about 70 miles from Kiev, provoked widespread criticism that members of then-president Leonid Kuchma's government were involved.
Georgiy Gongadze was kidnapped and killed in September 2000.
_____Ukraine Journalist Killed_____
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The former minister, Yuri Kravchenko, 53, was discovered at his house with two bullet wounds to the head. The Interfax news agency, quoting security sources, said Kravchenko left a note in which he blamed "Kuchma and his entourage" and said he wanted to protect his family from "attacks."
Senior government officials, including Kuchma, were implicated in the killing in 2000 when Socialist Party leader Oleksander Moroz played audiotapes in parliament that had been secretly recorded by a member of the president's security detail.
Progress in the case, dormant under the Kuchma administration, accelerated dramatically when President Viktor Yushchenko took office in January. Yushchenko said solving the case and bringing the killers to justice was a moral obligation and would be one of the first priorities of his administration.
Yushchenko told journalists Friday in Ukraine's parliament: "Everyone has a choice. Either appear before the court and publicly stand up for his rights and honor, or dispense justice on himself." He said the reported suicide could be linked to the Gongadze investigation.
In a later statement, Yushchenko said the investigation into Kravchenko's death "must be conducted in a transparent and professional manner and in full accordance with law."
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian prosecutor-general, Svyatoslav Piskun, announced that the four people directly involved in the kidnapping and killing of Gongadze had been identified, all connected to the interior ministry. He said two were in custody and a third had been ordered not to leave Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. An international warrant had been issued for the fourth suspect, Oleksiy Pukach, a senior police official, who had fled the country, Piskun said.
Piskun also said investigators had identified the mastermind in the Gongadze killing, but did not identify that person.
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko raised questions about whether Kravchenko had taken his own life, Interfax reported.
"If he really committed this act himself, it may indicate that he was afraid of taking responsibility for developments surrounding Gongadze's murder," she said. But Tymoshenko also said Kravchenko, who was fired by Kuchma in 2001, could have been killed to prevent others from being implicated in the Gongadze case. "If it was not a suicide, then it was an attempt to conceal the truth about the murder," Tymoshenko said.
Ukraine's Segodnya newspaper reported that Kravchenko had been placed under official surveillance in December and ordered not to leave Ukraine.
Some lawmakers said he should have been taken into custody once the prosecutor's office began a new investigation after Yushchenko won the presidency.
"The arrest would have been a way to protect Kravchenko," Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a parliamentarian who has long campaigned for a thorough investigation, told the Associated Press. "If he had been arrested, he would be alive."