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[MOSCOW] Boris Nemtsov, a longtime Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot and killed in central Moscow, the Russian Interior Ministry said early Saturday.
Mr Nemtsov, a central figure in Russian political life since the breakup of the Soviet Union, was a longtime leader of the opposition to Putin. He was one of the leaders of an opposition rally planned for Sunday.
There was no immediate information on who killed the 59-year-old opposition leader.
At least seven shots were fired at Nemtsov from a passing car, according to Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee, the Interfax news agency reported. Investigators rushed to the scene and were questioning witnesses, he said.
Russia's state-run Rossiya 24 television interrupted its programming to carry live imagery of the central Moscow bridge where Mr Nemtsov was killed. Flashing police lights lit up the night. The bridge, in the heart of Moscow, runs from near the walls of the Kremlin to an island in the Moscow River where major opposition rallies were held in 2011 and 2012.
A close associate of Mr Nemtsov, opposition activist Ilya Yashin, confirmed Mr Nemtsov's death on Facebook.
"Nemtsov has been shot. He is dead," Mr Yashin wrote.
Mr Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, angered the government two years ago when he charged that billions of dollars had been stolen from funds designated for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, his home town. He blamed "Putin's friends" for the alleged embezzlement, which he described as "a real threat to Russia's national security." A year earlier, Mr Putin warned publicly that his opponents were prepared to murder one of their own so they could blame him for the death.
"They are looking for a so-called sacrificial victim among some prominent figures," Mr Putin, a former KGB agent, told a gathering of the All-Russia Popular Front, a group organized to support him, ahead of Russia's 2012 presidential election. "They will knock him off, I beg your pardon, and then blame the authorities for that." Mr Nemtsov, an opponent whom Mr Putin was said to despise more than most, said at the time that it was up to the authorities to prevent such a crime.
"If the head of the federal government, who controls all intelligence agencies, makes a public statement that he has information about such a provocation and such a crime, he must do everything to prevent it and not just publicly scare Russians," he told the Interfax news agency.