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Russian and Ukrainian security services foiled a plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin, who faces a presidential election in less than a week, said his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Two militants were detained in Ukraine for planning to murder the premier in Moscow after the March 4 presidential ballot, Russia’s state-run Channel One television said today. It would be “inappropriate” to link the release of information about the plot to the election, Peskov said by phone today.
Putin, 59, is seeking a return to the Kremlin amid the biggest challenge to his 12-year rule after fraud allegations at parliamentary polls in December sparked the largest mass demonstrations against the government since the 1990s. Thousands of protesters wearing white ribbons yesterday joined hands in a bid to encircle central Moscow, including the Kremlin. Three polls published last week show Putin winning more than 50 percent, the level needed to avoid a runoff.
“Everything is being done to assure Putin’s victory,” said Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker for the opposition Just Russia party and a deputy head of the lower house of parliament’s security committee. “That’s why information is being dumped so that everyone forgets about mass protest rallies, allowing at the same time to pick up a few points on people’s sympathy.”
While threats to the head of state “exist always, every day,” the timing of the announcement days before the vote is “odd,” said Gudkov, who is also a former officer at the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
One of the men was arrested last month in Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast after arriving there from the United Arab Emirates via Turkey, Channel One said, adding that the suspects were acting on the orders of Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader who has claimed responsibility for orchestrating terror attacks in Russia before.
Ukraine’s state security service alerted Russia on Jan. 6 after an explosion in a residential building in Odessa two days earlier led them to uncover the plot, the station said. One of the would-be assassins was killed and another injured in the blast, it added.
After the blast, Ukraine began an investigation and “arrested a few people,” First Deputy Prime Minister Valery Khoroshkovskyi, who was head of Ukraine’s security service in January, said today in an interview in Brussels.
“When they started to give us some details we started to think about different possible developments,” he said. “And you can see how it finished.”
Channel One aired a video of one of the men confessing to planning the attack during an interrogation with unidentified agents. The second man described the plan to a reporter from the station. They planned to use a suicide bomber or landmine to kill Putin, according to the report.
One of the would-be assassins studied economics in London, where he also “mastered the use of explosives” and met exiled Russian militants, the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported, citing an interview with him on Russian state television that was broadcast in the country’s Far East.
The plan to kill Putin was the seventh against the Russian leader since he came to power in 2000, all of which were blamed on Chechen militants or al-Qaeda operatives, RIA reported today. The first plot was announced in February 2000, a month before Putin was elected president.
Peskov dismissed reports of an attempt on Putin’s life in 2000 as “unconfirmed rumors.”
Putin, as prime minister under then-President Boris Yeltsin, sent ground troops into Chechnya in 1999 to quell an uprising by militants seeking to establish an independent Islamic state in the mainly Muslim Northern Caucasus.
The timing of today’s announcement may boost Putin’s popularity, said Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation research group in Putin’s hometown.
“To uncover this kind of information a week before the vote is the ultimate way to mobilize apolitical voters who haven’t decided whom to vote for,” Vinogradov said by phone.
Putin will probably win the election in the first round with 60.3 percent of the vote, the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation said today on its website.
The FSB declined to comment on the assassination plot and nobody authorized to speak to the media at Ukraine’s state security service, known as the SBU, could be reached by phone in Kiev.
The SBU confirmed that it worked jointly with Russian counterparts to thwart the plot, Interfax reported.
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