MOSCOW — Three Russian journalists investigating the activities of a private security company with murky Kremlin connections have been killed in the Central African Republic, the Russian authorities said Tuesday.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the three Russians had been identified by their ID cards as Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko. Russian investigators said they had opened a criminal case to look into the deaths.
The journalists were making a documentary about the mysterious activities of a group of paramilitary mercenaries in the Central African Republic, which is undergoing brutal sectarian strife.
There was no indication that the killings were connected with the documentary project. The assailants were not identified.
Henri Depele, the mayor of the town of Sibut, the capital of Kémo, a prefecture in the Central African Republic, told the Reuters news agency that the journalists were killed in an ambush in the region on Monday night.
The journalists’ driver, who survived the attack, told Mr. Depele that he and his passengers were attacked about 14 miles away from Sibut.
“Armed men emerged from the bush and opened fire on the vehicle,” Mr. Depele said. “The three journalists died instantly.”
The security company the journalists were looking into, known as the Wagner Group, has reportedly been employed by the Kremlin to carry out secret military tasks in eastern Ukraine and Syria, where it has been protecting oil fields and other facilities.
The group’s relationship with the Kremlin is murky and unconfirmed, but its leaders have reportedly received awards from the Kremlin, and its mercenaries were trained at the Russian Defense Ministry’s facilities.
The journalists were in the Central African Republic on an assignment for the Investigation Control Center, a Russian online news organization financed by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon who now lives in exile.
Anastasia Gorshkova, deputy editor of the media outlet, told the Russian Dozhd news network on Sunday that the journalists had tried to enter an estate where members of the security company reportedly stayed, but they were told that they needed accreditation from the country’s Defense Ministry.
On Monday, the journalists planned to meet with a local contact in the town of Bambari, 235 miles away from the country’s capital, Bangui, Ms. Gorshkova said. The road to Bambari runs trough Sibut.
In March, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that at the request of the Central African Republic’s president, Moscow had decided to provide the country with “free military technical assistance.” Russia sent five military instructors and 170 advisers to train members of the country’s military, the ministry said in a statement.
Mr. Dzhemal, 51, was a leading Russian military correspondent. He covered conflicts across the world and was seriously injured in Libya in 2011. In 2008, he published a book, a firsthand account of the five-day Russia-Georgia war.
Mr. Rastorguev, 47, was one of the most prominent Russian documentary filmmakers of his generation. In 2013, he was among the three directors of an award-winning film about leaders of the Russian opposition.
Mr. Radchenko, 33, started his career as a projectionist, but had become a cameraman in recent years. In March, he served as an election observer in the Russian republic of Chechnya.