Russian online news organisation Investigation Control Centre (TsUR) said in a Facebook post the three journalists — identified as Orhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko — were in the country on assignment.
Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed in a statement that three people with identification documents belonging to Dzhemal, Rastorguyev and Radchenko had been found dead and their bodies had been brought back to the capital Bangui.
TsUR said the journalists had been investigating the activities of the so-called Wagner group, an organisation of private military contractors which, people with ties to the group have told Reuters, carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Local and international media have reported that Wagner operates in the country since Russia delivered light arms to the country’s security forces this year and deployed hundreds of military and civilian instructors to train them.
Reuters has been unable to verify the reports. Russian authorities deny that the Wagner group’s contractors are carrying out their orders.
Henri Depele, the mayor of the town of Sibut, around 200 km (125 miles) northeast of the capital Bangui, said the journalists were killed at around 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Monday. Their driver survived the attack.
“According to the driver’s explanations, when they were 23 km (14 miles) from Sibut … armed men emerged from the bush and opened fire on the vehicle. The three journalists died instantly,” he said.
TsUR’s statement said the journalists flew into Central African Republic last Friday and that its last contact with them was on Sunday evening.
The organisation is financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oil tycoon who was jailed on corruption charges and now lives outside Russia. He is one of the most vehement critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
TsUR has published a number of investigations alleging corruption by senior members of Putin’s entourage.
Central African Republic has been ravaged by violence, often fought along religious lines between predominantly Christian and Muslim militia, since a 2013 rebellion overthrew then-President Francois Bozize.
Most of the country is beyond the control of the Bangui government and a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission has struggled to keep a lid on the violence.