msnbc.com news services
updated 12/16/2011 4:05:53 AM ET 2011-12-16T09:05:53

The founder of a newspaper that investigated government corruption was shot dead in Russia's North Caucasus region, in what an international watchdog called "a lethal blow to press freedom."

A gunman shot Khadzhimurad Kamalov as he was leaving the offices of the newspaper Chernovik (Rough Draft) in the capital of Dagestan province shortly before midnight on Thursday, the regional Interior Ministry said.

Police said Kamalov was shot eight times and was pronounced dead on the way to hospital.

Kamalov's newspaper has reported extensively on police abuses in the fight against an Islamist insurgency that originated in neighboring Chechnya and has spread across the region.

Kamalov founded the weekly in 2003, worked as its editor for several years and remained its publisher until his killing late Thursday.

Vyacheslav Gasanov, a spokesman for the Russian Interior Minister in Dagestan, said a masked gunman riddled Kamalov with bullets outside the office in the provincial capital, Makhachkala.

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Chechen rebels have fought two separatist wars against Russian forces since 1994. Major battles in the second war subsided about a decade ago, but the Islamist insurgency has engulfed neighboring provinces, stoked by poverty and corruption. Rights activists accuse security services of fueling the violence with arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings of militant suspects.

Dagestan, the largest and most ethnically diverse of Russia's mostly Muslim provinces in the North Caucasus, has evolved into the main breeding ground for terror, with near daily attacks on police and other authorities.

'Massive loss'
Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot), a leading online news resource on the region, said Kamalov's name figured on a list of militants and their "accomplices" that has been released since 2009 by anonymous authors vowing to avenge the dead police and security officers.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said journalists at Chernovik, known for reporting on corruption in the provincial administration, had been "routinely persecuted for their work."

"The assassination of Khadzhimurad Kamalov is a massive loss for independent journalism in the North Caucasus, Russia's most dangerous place for reporters," the advocacy group's regional coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.

Chernovik's editor Nadira Isayeva was presented with the New CPJ's International Press Freedom award in 2010.

The committee hailed the paper's relentless reporting on the heavy-handed tactics of security agencies in the fight against Islamic militancy.

In 2008, authorities brought a criminal case against Isayeva and several other Chernovik journalists under anti-extremist legislation after she published an interview with a former guerrilla leader. A court acquitted them earlier this year.

International media watchdogs have ranked Russia among the world's most dangerous countries for reporters.

There have been 19 unsolved murders of journalists in Russia since 2000, including the 2006 killing of Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, according to the CPJ.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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