Western leaders and Russian opposition on Saturday condemned the drive-by assassination of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov while President Vladimir Putin suggested the crime was staged to throw suspicion on the state. US President Barack Obama decried the “brutal” and “vicious murder” of Nemtsov, which prompted the cancellation of a major opposition rally planned for Sunday, and urged Russia to conduct an impartial probe. French President François Hollande called the killing a “hateful murder” of a “defender of democracy,” while British Prime Minister David Cameron said the “callous murder” must be investigated “fully, rapidly and transparently.” Putin, who has taken personal charge of the investigation, was quoted by the Kremlin as saying the crime “had all the hallmarks of a contract killing and is entirely provocative in nature,” suggesting it was aimed at smearing the authorities.
The brazen assassination was one of the highest profile killings during Putin’s 15 years in power. Investigators said Nemtsov was shot in the back from a white car as he he was walking with a woman along a bridge just meters from the Kremlin. One or more gunmen shot at Nemtsov at least seven or eight times, investigators said. They said one of the weapons was believed to be a Makarov pistol, used by Russian military and police. Cartridges left at the scene came from different manufacturers, making them harder to trace, they said. A steady stream of people heaped flowers and photos of Nemtsov and set candles at the site of the murder on Saturday, with police closing off one lane of traffic to let them through.