An associate of Vladimir Putin who was sanctioned for running the troll factory targeting the 2016 US elections has been accused of attacks on anti-Kremlin bloggers.
Valery Amelchenko, 61, told independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that he was paid by catering mogul Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin's chef” after he prepared many state dinners for the president, to carry out brutal intimidation tactics against regime critics.
He claimed to have helped assassinate one blogger with poison.
Amelchenko, who agreed to talk after journalists identified him as part of an investigation, has since gone missing.
Prigozhin was indicted by a federal grand jury and sanctioned in the United States this year for funding the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which impersonated US political organisations and ran fake ads on social media to interfere in the 2016 election.
Andrei Mikhailov, a key troll factory figure named by Amelchenko as his immediate overseer, confirmed to Novaya Gazeta that he had hired Amelchenko while working for Prigozhin in 2012-14.
On Friday, the US government charged a Russian woman with participating in a plot by Prigozhin to interfere in the midterm elections in November.
Amelchenko, a former convict, said he had been ordered to beat up a Sochi blogger who had “written bad things about Putin” in 2013, an incident confirmed by Mikhailov.
He also said he was part of a hit squad that poisoned a blogger in Pskov in 2016. Another member of the squad injected the man with an unknown substance as he was leaving his house, after which he fell and could not be revived by paramedics.
Amelchenko said he later photographed the man's gravestone to prove to his “curator” that the hit was a success.
Novaya Gazeta identified the blogger as Sergei Tikhonov through Amelchenko's detailed description of the house. Relatives said he had died of a heart attack in 2016.
Mr Putin's spokesman said on Monday the accusations of attacks ordered by Prigozhin had not yet been “confirmed by competent organs”.
According to Amelchenko, another Prigozhin employee was behind the attack on the husband of Lyubov Sobol, an ally of opposition leader Alexei Navalny who had investigated Prigozhin's lucrative army ration contracts.
Sobol's husband lost consciousness and was briefly hospitalised after an unknown man holding a bouquet injected him with an unknown substance in 2016.
The perpetrator identified by Amelchenko died in mysterious circumstances in 2017, but his widow confirmed that he was the man with a bouquet seen in CCTV footage of the attack.
Amelchenko said he also was sent on operations to the Canary Islands as well as to Ukraine, where he spied on pro-Western protests and helped assassinate a separatist leader in Luhansk.
In addition, he claimed to have been part of a group sent to test poisons on captured rebels in Syria. When no rebels could be found for the human experiments, he said Prigozhin's men tried to test the poisons on fighters from the pro-Assad Isil Hunters, one of whom died.
Prigozhin previously employed Dmitry Utkin, who was sanctioned by the United States as the leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner in Syria. Dozens of Wagner operatives were killed by US airstrikes when they advanced on a Kurdish-held oil and gas field in February.
Severed ram's head & funeral accoutrements left for Denis Korotkov at independent newspaper @novaya_gazeta. He's been accused of betraying Russia after covering Wagner mercenaries in Syria. Half a dozen+ Novaya journalists have been killed for their work https://t.co/jdpNKQmIRIpic.twitter.com/6JI72eijiu— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) October 18, 2018
Fearful of his safety, Amelchenko refused to reveal many details of his work until he could go into hiding.
He disappeared immediately after meeting with Novaya Gazeta in St Petersburg earlier this month. He had called a reporter to say he was being followed by two young men when the line went dead. His phone was later found on the street with a pair of shoes, and police have issued a missing person notice.
A funeral wreath was sent last week to the home of the reporter, Denis Korotkov, and a severed goat's head in a basket was left for him at the offices of Novaya Gazeta. More than half a dozen contributors to the paper, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered in the past.
Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was accused by US prosecutors on Friday of filing multi-million dollar budgets as chief accountant of the Prigozhin-funded Project Lakhta, which imitated Americans on social media to inflame tensions around issues like immigration and gun control before the November 6 congressional elections.
British authorities have previously accused Russian operatives of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, spies who defected to the UK.