Reporter Who Died in Fall Probed Weapons

The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 6, 2007; 4:27 PM

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.

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