MOSCOW (AP) – A Russian court on Saturday acquitted two men accused of murdering U.S. journalist and Forbes Russian edition editor Paul Klebnikov in the Russian capital in 2004.

Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict.

The Moscow City Court’s verdict followed a jury vote Friday to acquit ethnic Chechen Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev in the killing of Klebnikov.

Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin told reporters that he would appeal the verdict to Russia’s Supreme Court on “flagrant procedural violations.” Under Russian law, acquittals can be appealed.

Prosecutors claimed the defendants killed Klebnikov on behalf of a Chechen separatist figure who was the subject of a critical book by the victim.

Critics of Russia’s justice system, which came under fire during the trial of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and is widely seen as lacking independence from the Kremlin, have said prosecutors failed to properly pursue other lines of investigation in the Klebnikov case.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media freedom watchdog, welcomed the verdict and called for a new probe.

“This verdict confirms the doubts that Reporters Without Borders has been expressing since the start of the case as to how seriously the authorities were conducting the investigation,” the group said in a statement Saturday. “We have always stressed that many criminals and statesmen had reasons to hold a grudge against the journalist because of his investigative work on alleged links between Chechen separatists and Kremlin representatives.”

Klebnikov, a 41-year-old New Yorker of Russian descent, was shot on the street outside the Forbes office in Moscow in July 2004. The high-profile slaying raised questions about who would want to kill Klebnikov, a journalist and author who investigated corruption and sought to shed light on the closed, sometimes violent world of Russian business.

Dukuzov’s lawyer Igor Korotkov said eight jurors favored acquittal and four were opposed.

Relatives and friends of the defendants met the verdict with cheers, applause and tears of relief outside the courtroom.

The U.S. State Department and Klebnikov’s family urged the Russian government to continue its investigation with renewed vigor after the acquittal.

“We urge Russian authorities to do everything possible to find and prosecute all those responsible for the murder – those who pulled the trigger and those who ordered the killing,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Klebnikov’s brother Michael told The Associated Press late Friday that the family is unhappy that nobody responsible for his death has been brought to justice.

He said that judging by information from the family’s lawyers and an independent assessment by a U.S. Justice Department specialist, the evidence against the defendants was circumstantial but strong enough to produce a conviction. However, he added, “As a family, we must respect the decision of an impartial jury, regardless of the outcome.”

The jury also acquitted Fail Sadretdinov, who was tried alongside Dukuzov and Vakhayev in connection with a separate crime, the alleged attempted murder of a businessman. Prosecutors said Sadretdinov was linked with the other two defendants.

AP-ES-05-06-06 1214EDT