Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Saturday near the Kremlin, just a day before a planned protest against the government.

The death of Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister, ignited fury among opposition figures who assailed the Kremlin for creating an atmosphere of intolerance of any dissent and called the killing an assassination.

Putin quickly offered his condolences and called the murder a provocation. He has ordered Russia's top law enforcement chiefs to personally oversee the probe of Nemtsov's killing.

Nemtsov was working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved Russia's direct involvement in the separatist rebellion that has raged in eastern Ukraine since April. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels with troops and sophisticated weapons. Moscow denies the accusations.

The protest march that had been called for Sunday, of which Nemtsov was one of the leaders, was cancelled and organizers instead will try to hold a march of mourning for him in central Moscow, said Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister now part of the opposition.

Nemtsov frequently assailed the government's inefficiency, rampant corruption and the Kremlin's Ukraine policy, which has strained relations between Russia and the West to a degree not seen since Cold War times.

In an interview with the Sobesednik newspaper, Nemtsov said earlier this month that his 86-year old mother was afraid that Putin could have him killed for his opposition activities. Asked if he had such fears himself, he responded: "If I were afraid I wouldn't have led an opposition party."

Speaking on radio just a few hours before his death, he harshly criticized Putin for plunging Russia into crisis by his "mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine."

A man lays flowers at the spot, where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead

"The country needs a political reform," Nemtsov said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

"When power is concentrated in the hands of one person and this person rules forever, this will lead to an absolute catastrophe, absolute."

After Nemtsov's body was taken away, people put flowers at the spot where he was killed.

"It's because of his activism, which was very important," said one, Yevgeniya Berkovich. "It's political in any case. Even if it was done by some random street cleaner who went crazy and had a gun, it's because he got it into his head that this is now the fashion."

Nemtsov said during a radio interview just before his death that it was hard to live under constant intimidation and pressure.

I won't hide the fact that the opposition is under strong pressure. Lies are spread about the people, and one has to be a very strong person to cope with all this. I know this from my own experience.

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