MOSCOW — Russia's top investigative authority said it was looking at whether the shooting death of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov early on Saturday was aimed at destabilizing the state.
A line of inquiry not mentioned in the statement on the website for Russia's Investigative Committee was the possibility that he was gunned down because he was one of President Vladimir Putin's staunchest critics.
The committee would investigate whether Nemtsov was slain as a "sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals," the committee said in the statement.
The committee was also looking at the possibility that Nemtsov, who was shot as he walked across a bridge in Moscow earlier on Saturday, was linked to Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict or his personal life.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also called the murder “a provocation” benefiting the opposition and said on Kommersant FM radio that ratings-wise, “Boris Nemtsov was just a little more than an average citizen.”
The 55-year-old former deputy prime minister's death ignited a fury among opposition figures who assailed the Kremlin for creating an atmosphere of intolerance of any dissent and called the killing an assassination. Prominent journalist Ivan Zassoursky even called Nemtsov “Russia’s Kennedy.”
But in a statement from the Kremlin on Saturday, Putin sent his condolences to Nemtsov's mother, Dina Yakovlevna Eydman, calling his death an "irreparable loss."
"Boris Nemtsov left his mark on the history of Russia, in politics and public life. He dropped out to work on important positions in the difficult transition period for our country," Putin said in the statement, adding, "Everything will be done to the organizers and executors of the vile and cynical murder are punished."
Nemtsov was shot two days before leading a major opposition rally in Moscow. He was working on a report detailing Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine, his friends said.
Outside the Russian Consulate in New York City on Saturday afternoon, a crowd of about 25 people held candles and signs that read, "Stop Putin Now." Some of those in attendance expressed animosity toward the culture Putin has reportedly created against his opposition in Russia. One man called Nemtsov's death an act of terrorism.
— Alexey Eremenko, F. Brinley Bruton and Tricia Culligan
Reuters contributed to this report.