KIEV, Ukraine -- The former interior minister was found dead in his home Friday, an apparent suicide, just before he was to be questioned about the 2000 slaying of an investigative journalist, dealing a blow to an inquiry that could implicate the former president.
Former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko suffered two gunshot wounds to the head, a TV station reported he left a note blaming his suicide on former president Leonid Kuchma "and his entourage," and the journalist's widow suggested it was all part of a cover-up to protect "the old regime."
President Viktor Yushchenko, who has made solving the murder of journalist Heoriy Gongadze a moral obligation for his new administration, ordered the current interior minister and prosecutor general to take over the investigation.
Kravchenko, 53, had been implicated in organizing the killing of Gongadze, who wrote about top-level corruption under Kuchma.
The killing of Gongadze -- who was found decapitated in a forest outside the capital in 2000 -- sparked months of protests against Kuchma. The opposition alleged Kuchma ordered the killing.
Kuchma again denied any involvement Friday.
"Before God, before people, before my conscience, I'm clean," Kuchma told reporters at a spa resort in the Czech Republic. He said he would return home today and was prepared to talk to prosecutors, Czech and Ukrainian TV reported.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Inna Kisel said Kravchenko's death "appears to be a suicide."
He died at his country residence outside Kiev.
Citing unidentified law enforcement officials, the Interfax news agency and Ukraine's private NTN television reported Kravchenko left a note blaming "Kuchma and his entourage" for his death and said he wanted to save his family from "attacks."
Yuriy Lutsenko, the current interior minister, said Kravchenko suffered gunshot wounds in the chin and in his temple. "One was not deadly; one was," he said on Ukrainian TV.
Kisel said she had no information about the note.
The Ukrainian TV network Inter said Kuchma told reporters he did not believe Kravchenko ordered Gongadze's killing and said the former interior minister was under "crazy pressure," partly from the media.
The allegations against Kuchma were based on recordings that a former presidential bodyguard, Mykola Melnichenko, said were made secretly in the president's office.
In the tapes, Kuchma was overheard repeatedly complaining about Gongadze's reporting and ordering Kravchenko to "drive him out, throw (him) out, give him to the Chechens."
Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who was Kuchma's chief of staff, was also allegedly heard on the tapes saying: "In my opinion, let loose Kravchenko to use alternative methods."
Kuchma has disputed the tapes' authenticity and Lytvyn said he was ready to testify in connection with the case.
Stepan Khmara, a key lawmaker, said Kuchma shoud be "taken under protective custody immediately."
Melnichenko said Friday that Kravchenko's death "plays into Kuchma's hands."
"Fewer and fewer witnesses remain," Melnichenko told The Associated Press by telephone from London.
Gongadze's widow called Kravchenko's death a setback for the investigation but said she was confident it would not be stalled -- "because there's no way back now."
"Kravchenko was a key link in the chain of the crime," said Myroslava Gongadze, speaking to the AP by telephone from the United States, where she now lives.
She suggested the death was part of a cover-up attempt, saying there were "too many people from the old regime who would try to conceal the true course of events."
On Wednesday, Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun said investigators had identified all four people involved in Gongadze's killing and knew who was the mastermind. He refused to reveal the person's identity.
Two of the suspects, all employed by Ukraine's police, are in custody, one is under orders not to leave Kiev, and the fourth, senior police official Oleksiy Pukach, is at large and on an international warrant, Piskun said.
Ukraine's Segodnya newspaper reported that Kravchenko had been under official surveillance since December and ordered not to leave the country.
Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a lawmaker who has repeatedly focused attention on Gongadze's slaying, told the AP he had asked the prosecutor to detain Kravchenko more than a month ago for his own protection. "If he had been arrested, he would be alive," Omelchenko said.
On Monday, a man identified as a key witness in the case, Yuriy Nesterov, was reportedly wounded in a grenade explosion. Another key witness, former police officer Ihor Honcharov, died in prison two years ago under suspicious circumstances. In a letter prior to his death, Honcharov implicated Nesterov in kidnapping, torturing and killing Gongadze.