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Helicopter pilot killed in Spain is believed to be a Russian who defected to Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A man shot dead near Alicante in Spain last week is believed to have been a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine last year. Ukrainian intelligence has since confirmed his death. Miguel Macias reports from Spain.

MIGUEL MACIAS, BYLINE: This all started with a call from a neighbor to the police.

JOSE BAUTISTA: The neighbor - at the beginning, he thought that the man had been hit by a car.

MACIAS: Jose Bautista is an investigative journalist based in Madrid. The Spanish Civil Guard arrived at the scene and confirmed that a man had been shot to death on the ramp of the community garage of an apartment building in the seaside resort of Villajoyosa.

BAUTISTA: At the beginning, they thought it was a gangster story. They thought he was from Ukraine.

MACIAS: Bautista says the Spanish Civil Guard could not confirm officially the identity of the dead man, but...

BAUTISTA: We had access to different police sources who confirmed that the murdered man is actually Maksim Kuzminov.

MACIAS: Maksim Kuzminov - last August, Kuzminov flew a Russian helicopter into Ukrainian territory and handed himself in. But this was not an act of improvisation. Ukrainian intelligence said the defection was the result of a six-month operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAKSIM KUZMINOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MACIAS: This is Kuzminov speaking at a press conference last September in Ukraine. Kuzminov said he defected because he objected to the war. The deal between him and the Ukrainian intelligence involved the reward of half a million dollars, protection for his family and new documents. He could have stayed in Ukraine, authorities say, but he didn't.

Then, last Tuesday, the body of a man who had been shot multiple times to death, then run over by his own car, was found. The car was located later, burned down near the area.

Ukrainian intelligence have since confirmed the individual as Maksim Kuzminov. There has been no official comment from Moscow, but the head of Russia's intelligence agency told the press, quote, "this traitor and criminal became a moral corpse at the very moment when he planned his dirty and terrible crime." Shortly after his defection last year, Russian TV carried a news segment where a special forces officer of the military intelligence made this chilling prediction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MACIAS: "The order was received. Its execution is a matter of time."

BAUTISTA: I do trust the work of Guardia Civil. The work of the investigators will somehow clarify what exactly happened and who killed this man.

MACIAS: That's Jose Bautista again. He says all the signs point to the Russians. But proving who did this may be difficult. The area where Kuzminov lived before he was found dead sits along the Spanish eastern Mediterranean coast and is popular amongst Ukrainian immigrants, many of them refugees from the war. Spain has welcomed more than 180,000 refugees since Russia launched their war against Ukraine. The news of Kuzminov's death has shocked the Ukrainian community there. Many of them are now in fear that what seemed like a safe haven in Spain no longer feels that way.

Miguel Macias, NPR News, Seville, Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARLINGSIDE SONG, "OLD FRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.