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Vladimir Putin has laughed off speculation about his health as he reappeared in public since after ten days.

“Life would be boring without gossip,” the Russian president told Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev at talks in St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin, 62, appeared relaxed and smiled before the television cameras.

His disappearance from public view had sparked rumors that he might have fallen ill, died, been removed in a coup, or once again become a father.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

A brief video of Vladimir Putin’s meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart at the Constantine Palace in Russia’s second city was broadcast by state television without sound.

Asked by reporters about the speculation on his health, Vladimir Putin replied: “It would be boring without gossip.”

Almazbek Atambayev, for his part, said Vladimir Putin had driven him around the palace for 20 minutes before the meeting.

“I can confirm that he’s in excellent form,” Almazbek Atambayev was quoted by one journalist as saying.

Vladimir Putin’s last public appearance was on March 5 when he met Italian PM Matteo Renzi.

Last week, Vladimir Putin cancelled a number of scheduled events, including a visit to Kazakhstan that was due to take place on March 12-13, and the signing of an agreement with South Ossetia.

As speculation about Vladimir Putin’s disappearance mounted, the hashtag #Putinumer (#Putinisdead) trended on Twitter. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was forced to counter questions about each rumor, dismissing them as “March madness”.

“So everyone has now seen the paralyzed president captured by a general who has just returned from Switzerland where he was delivering a baby?” Dmitry Peskov asked journalists sarcastically on March 16.

Vladimir Putin’s reappearance coincides with the first anniversary of a controversial referendum in Crimea, which Russia used as justification for annexing the Ukrainian peninsula.

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Vladimir Putin has appeared in public for the first time after 10 days of absence, quelling intense speculation about his health.

The Russian president was meeting Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev in St Petersburg. He was last seen in public on March 5.

Commenting on the rumors about his health, Vladimir Putin said: “Things would be boring without gossip,” RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Earlier, Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s navy on to a state of full combat readiness in the Arctic.

Photo Twitter

Photo Twitter

Russia says the navy drills involve 56 warships, planes and 38,000 personnel.

According to a tweet from the meeting in St Petersburg, Almazbek Atambayev said that Vladimir Putin “just took me for a little drive – he was at the wheel – nearby here, and I can confirm that he’s in excellent form”.

The Russian TV news channel Rossiya 24 also showed some brief footage of Vladimir Putin at the meeting, without sound.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov – quoted in a Russian journalist’s tweet – said St Petersburg was chosen as a convenient venue for Almazbek Atambayev, whose daughter is studying there.

Dmitry Peskov was also quoted as saying the “little drive” mentioned by the Kyrgyz leader lasted about 20 minutes, and Vladimir Putin “showed what a beautiful place Strelnya is”.

Vladimir Putin and Almazbek Atambayev were meeting at a tsarist palace in Strelnya, outside St Petersburg.

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IKEA is closing its lifestyle website in Russia over fears it could flout the country’s law banning the promotion of gay values to minors.

In a statement, the furniture giant said some articles in IKEA Family Live could be viewed in Russia as gay “propaganda”.

The controversial law was approved by President Vladimir Putin in 2013, drawing criticism from rights groups.

They say it has been used to ban gay rights events, a claim Russia denies.IKEA to close lifestyle website in Russia over gay propaganda fears

In a statement, IKEA said: “When we do business, we observe the legislation of the countries where we work, therefore to avoid violations, we have taken the decision to stop publishing the magazine in Russia.”

It said the online magazine – which is published in 25 countries – “shows different aspects of people’s lives at home, regardless of their age, gender, s**ual orientation, nationality and religion”.

“The magazine reflects the values ​​of the IKEA company, including equal rights and opportunities for all.”

IKEA’s press office in Russia stressed that the company had not received any official warnings in Russia related to the “gay propaganda” law, the AFP news agency reports.

Russian authorities have so far made not commented on IKEA’s move.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted for the first time that the plan to annex Crimea was ordered weeks before the referendum on self-determination.

Crimea was formally absorbed into Russia on March 18, to international condemnation, after unidentified gunmen took over the peninsula.

Vladimir Putin said on TV he had ordered work on “returning Crimea” to begin at an all-night meeting on February 22.

The meeting was called after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.

Speaking last year, Vladimir Putin had said only that he took his final decision about Crimea after secret, undated opinion polls showed 80% of Crimeans favored joining Russia.

The findings of these polls were borne out by the outcome of the referendum on March 16, he told Russian state TV last April.

Speaking in a forthcoming Russian TV documentary, Vladimir Putin said a meeting with officials had been held on February 22-23 to plan the rescue of Ukraine’s deposed president.

“I invited the leaders of our special services and the defense ministry to the Kremlin and set them the task of saving the life of the president of Ukraine, who would simply have been liquidated,” he said.Vladimir Putin Crimea annexation plot

“We finished about seven in the morning. When we were parting, I told all my colleagues, <<We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia>>.”

The trailer for The Path To The Motherland was broadcast on March 8 with no release date announced.

On February 27, unidentified armed men seized the local parliament and local government buildings in Crimea, raising the Russian flag.

Among them appeared to be regular soldiers without military insignia, who were dubbed the “little green men”.

Vladimir Putin subsequently admitted deploying troops on the peninsula to “stand behind Crimea’s self-defense forces”.

The formal annexation of Crimea sparked unrest in eastern Ukraine on April 7, when pro-Russian protesters occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv demanding independence.

A month later, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after unrecognized referendums.

Ukraine responded by launching an “anti-terrorist operation” against them and the region became engulfed in a conflict which has cost at least 6,000 lives and driven more than a million people from their homes, according to the UN.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the separatists with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation.

Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.

Full details of Viktor Yanukovych’s escape from Ukraine are unclear although Vladimir Putin spoke of preparations to evacuate him from Donetsk.

The documentary, which Russian TV says will be broadcast soon, was made by Andrei Kondrashov, a journalist with state-run channel Rossiya-1.

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Zaur Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev have been charged in connection with the murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov.

The Moscow court said one of the men, Zaur Dadayev, had admitted involvement in the shooting on a bridge near the Kremlin on February 27.

Zaur Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev are of Chechen origin.

Three other suspects were remanded in custody. A sixth man is reported to have killed himself in a standoff with police in the Chechen capital Grozny.

The suspect threw one grenade at the arresting officers and blew himself up with another, a security source told Interfax news agency.

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and veteran liberal politician, who was 55, was shot in the back four times as he was walking with his girlfriend within sight of the Kremlin. He was buried in Moscow on March 3.Zaur Dadayev has admitted involvement in Boris Nemtsov murder

Anzor Gubashev and Zaur Dadayev, who are both accused of organizing and carrying out the murder, were brought into court amid heavy security.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Zaur Dedayev was a devout Muslim who was shocked by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Russian investigators have previously said they were looking into the possibility that Boris Nemtsov was killed over his defense of Charlie Hebdo.

In a statement on his Instagram account, Ramazan Kadyrov also confirmed Zaur Dadayev had been a member of the Chechen police who was decorated for his bravery.

The other suspects include Anzor Gubashev’s younger brother Shagid Gubashev and two men named as Ramzan Bakhayev and Tamerlan Eskerkhanov. Reports say all three have denied any involvement in the murder.

Four of the men come from the northern Caucasus region and were detained in the republic of Ingushetia which borders Chechnya, Russian media say.

The Russian Investigations Committee is treating the case as a “contract killing”, Interfax news agency reported.

According to the sections of the criminal code cited in court, investigators believe the murder was carried out by a group of people, that it was committed on contract for financial gains, and that it also involved extortion and banditry, Interfax says.

President Vladimir Putin has condemned Boris Nemtsov’s murder and called for an end to “shameful” political killings in Russia.

However, leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny accused the Kremlin of ordering the assassination to cow the opposition amid Russia’s mounting economic problems.

Boris Nemtsov was killed just days before a march against the war in Ukraine that he was organizing.

Boris Nemtsov had also been drafting a report expected to expose covert Russian military involvement in the conflict.

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Russian authorities have arrested two men over the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has announced.

Anzor Gubashev and Zaur Dadayev were detained on March 7, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov said, speaking on national television.

President Vladimir Putin has been informed of their detention, Alexander Bortnikov added.Boris Nemtsov murder 2015

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, 55, was shot dead on the night of February 27 as he was walking on the street with his girlfriend.

He was buried in Moscow on March 3.

Russia’s leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny accused the Kremlin of ordering the assassination in order to cow the opposition amid Russia’s mounting economic problems.

President Vladimir Putin publicly condemned the murder of Boris Nemtsov and called for an end to “shameful” political killings in Russia.

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and several EU politicians have been barred from attending the funeral of murdered politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow.

A Polish politician was denied a visa under existing Russian sanctions while a Latvian MEP was turned back after arriving at a Moscow airport.

Alexei Navalny was denied permission to leave jail, where he is serving a 15-day sentence.

Mourners are filing past Boris Nemtsov’s coffin at Moscow’s Sakharov centre.

His funeral will be held in the afternoon at a Moscow cemetery, Troyekurovskoye, where murdered journalist Anna Politkovskayta was buried in 2006.

Boris Nemtsov, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was killed on a bridge near the Kremlin wall on Friday night.

No arrests have been made and no clear motive has been established for the crime.

New CCTV footage of the presumed getaway car has been released by a pro-Kremlin Russian news website, LifeNews. The video shows a vehicle making its way along Moscow streets but there is no close-up on the suspects inside.Boris Nemtsov funeral

Former British PM John Major, who was in Moscow to pay his respects, called for a full, transparent investigation into Boris Nemtsov’s murder, saying his voice would not be silenced.

It was, he added, his “saddest ever visit to Moscow”.

Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete was refused entry into Russia at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow without a proper explanation.

Sandra Kalniete said she had been made to wait two hours at the airport before being denied entry.

Bogdan Borusewicz, the Polish senate speaker who was to have led a delegation from his country, was denied a visa.

Russia said Bogdan Borusewicz was on a list of Polish officials barred from travelling to Russia, drawn up after the EU imposed sanctions on Russia over its involvement in Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin will not attend the funeral, the Kremlin said, but will send a representative in his place.

Alexei Navalny is currently in custody for 15 days for handing out leaflets publicizing a demonstration.

He appealed against a court decision not to release him temporarily but the appeal is only going to be heard on Wednesday, the day after the funeral.

Tens of thousands of people marched through central Moscow on March 1 to honor Boris Nemtsov, with the opposition claiming some 50,000 people had attended the event.

Boris Nemtsov, 55, had been due to lead an opposition march that day, but his killing turned the event into a mourning rally.

His allies have accused the Kremlin of involvement but President Vladimir Putin condemned the murder as “vile” and “provocative”, vowing to find the killers.

Boris Nemtsov had been walking home from a restaurant with his Ukrainian girlfriend, Anna Durytska, when he was shot four times.

Anna Durytska, a 23-year-old Ukrainian model, was allowed to return to Ukraine after being questioned by Russian police.

She told Russian media she had not seen the killer, who struck from behind.

Russia’s Federal Protective Service, in charge of presidential security, has said its surveillance cameras did not record the shooting because they were pointed towards the Kremlin.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since he accused Russia of lying about its role in Ukraine’s war.

The talks in Geneva coincide with a UN report on human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis in east Ukraine.

The UN says the conflict has claimed at least 6,000 lives, with hundreds killed in the past few weeks alone.

A fragile ceasefire is holding despite some fighting in recent days.

At his meeting in Geneva, John Kerry is also expected to raise the brutal murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27.

Boris Nemtsov, who was shot on a bridge near the Kremlin, had been planning an anti-war rally and was said to be working on a report to expose the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.

His allies accused the Kremlin of involvement but Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the murder as “vile” and vowed to find the killers.John Kerry to meet Sergei Lavrov in Geneva

John Kerry will press for an investigation that he said should examine not only who pulled the trigger, but who ordered, funded and co-ordinated Boris Nemtsov’s murder.

Separately, John Kerry is also expected to renew negotiations with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Tehran’s nuclear program.

There is an end of March deadline to reach agreement on limiting the program, in return for an easing of economic sanctions on Iran.

The talks on Ukraine are expected to be tense after John Kerry last week accused Russian officials of lying to him about Moscow’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During a visit to London on February 21, John Kerry accused the Kremlin of “craven behavior” in its support for the rebels in east Ukraine, undermining a ceasefire.

Fighting began in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April, a month after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.

The UN estimates that at least 1.25 million have fled their homes, and believes that the real number of fatalities could be considerably higher than the 6,000 it has given.

In its latest report, released on March 2, it refers to credible accounts of heavy weapons and foreign fighters continuing to flow into eastern Ukraine from Russia.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers.

Independent experts echo that accusation but Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.

Both sides in the conflict have been pulling back some heavy weaponry from the front line – one of the conditions of the ceasefire agreement signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk last month.

Monitors from the OSCE security group have reported weapons movements on both sides but say it is too early to confirm a full withdrawal. Meanwhile violence continued over the weekend.

Taavi Roivas’ ruling Reform Party won Estonia’s general elections overshadowed by security concerns sparked by Russia’s role in Ukraine.

PM Taavi Roivas, whose party has 30 seats, is set to form a coalition in the 101-member parliament.

The results are a blow to the Centre Party, which has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who were expected to do well in the poll.

Estonia was once part of the former Soviet Union but is now a NATO member.

“The Reform Party is the 2015 winner of the parliamentary elections,” Taavi Roivas declared on the ETV public television station.

Taavi Roivas’ party claimed 27.7% with most of the votes counted, down from 28.6% at the last parliamentary elections in 2011.Taavi Roivas party wins Estonia elections 2015

The pro-Russian Centre Party took 24.8% of the votes, winning one more seat to take them to 27 in total.

The Social Democrats, who have been Reform’s coalition partner, now hold 15 seats after losing four while the IRL party lost 9 seats to take them to 14.

Analysts said Reform Party could face some difficulty in forming a new coalition, with parliament now split between six parties rather than the previous four.

The two newcomers – a free-market liberal party and an anti-immigration conservative party – won 15 seats between them.

Asked whether he would contemplate forming a coalition with the Centre Party, Taavi Roivas said “definitely not”.

In the run up to the election, Taavi Roivas had called for an “Estonian-minded government”. At 35, he is the youngest prime minister in Europe.

Estonia’s political debate has been dominated by economic issues and fears over defense due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

One voter in the capital, Tallinn, told the AFP news agency: “If [the Russians] come in here, Estonia can’t do anything.”

“I’m not sure NATO will help us out, Let’s hope that it will not go that far,” he added.

Estonia has seen a number of airspace violations by Russia, and last year a security official was detained by Russia and accused of spying.

Taavi Roivas has voiced concerns that Russia could seek to destabilize other former Soviet states following the conflict in Ukraine.

The Centre Party leader, Edgar Saavisar, favors a friendlier approach to Moscow, and has previously suggested that Russia’s annexation of Crimea could be legitimate.

About a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million population are ethnic Russians, many of whom are Centre Party supporters.

Estonia is a pioneer of electronic voting, with a reported one in five casting their vote online.

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Tens of thousands of people are set to march in Moscow to honor opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on February 27.

Boris Nemtsov was due to lead an opposition march on March 1 but his supporters will now be marching to mourn his death.

President Vladimir Putin condemned Boris Nemtsov’s murder as “vile and cynical” and vowed to find the killers.

Boris Nemtsov’s allies call it a political killing linked to his opposition to Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine conflict.

Opposition supporters are due to gather in central Moscow at 14:00 local time on March 1, before marching to the spot on Great Moskvoretsky Bridge where Boris Nemtsov was killed.

Moscow city authorities had previously approved a march for up to 50,000 people but organizers said more people might now attend following the murder.

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Photo Reuters

As night fell on February 28, flowers were piled up a meter high and two meters wide on the bridge.

Placards read: “We are all Nemtsov” and “Je Suis Boris” – the latter a reference to the Je Suis Charlie messages of support following the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said it was looking into a number of possible motives, including Boris Nemtsov’s opposition to the Ukraine war, his political and personal life, Islamic extremism or an attempt to destabilize the state.

A number of pro-government figures suggested Boris Nemtsov had been made a sacrificial victim to show the state in a bad light.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-backed leader of Chechnya, blamed: “Western special services, trying by any means to create internal conflict in Russia.”

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin had noted “that this cruel murder has all the makings of a contract hit and is extremely provocative”.

Others suggested there could have been personal enmity over Boris Nemtsov’s private or business life.

Boris Nemtsov was reportedly preparing documents on Russian military involvement in Ukraine in the weeks before his death.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said: “Boris had declared he would provide clear evidence of Russian armed forces’ participation in [the war] in Ukraine. Somebody was afraid of this… They killed him.”

Boris Nemtsov, 55, had been dining at a restaurant with his girlfriend Anna Duritskaya on Friday night.

They left together to walk to his flat, crossing the bridge, where a white car drew up and Boris Nemtsov was shot four times with a pistol at around 23:40.

Footage on Russian TV showed a white Lada Priora car in the area but there was no confirmation it was the one involved. One shot showed someone running along the road and jumping into the waiting car, which sped off.

Boris Nemtsov served as first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s but fell out of favor with Vladimir Putin and became an outspoken opponent.

He told the weekly Sobesednik recently that his mother was worried about him.

“She is more worried about Putin than Ukraine. Every time I call her, she gives me a talking-to: <<When will you stop being rude about Putin? He’ll kill you>>.”

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Estonia is voting in a general election overshadowed by security concerns sparked by Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

The Centre Party, which has ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, is expected to do well.

However, the Centre Party is seen as a pariah by other parties, who are likely to band together to renew the current governing coalition.

Estonia was once part of the former Soviet Union but is now a NATO member.

PM Taavi Roivas has voiced concerns that Russia could seek to destabilize other former Soviet states.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

He has called for an “Estonian-minded government”.

At 35, Taavi Roivas is the youngest prime minister in Europe.

Estonia has seen a number of airspace violations by Russia, and last year a security official was detained by Russia and accused of spying.

The Centre Party leader, Edgar Saavisar, favours a friendlier approach to Moscow, and has suggested that Russia’s annexation of Crimea could be legitimate.

About a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million population are ethnic Russians, many of whom are Centre Party supporters.

Estonia is a pioneer of electronic voting, with a reported one in five casting their vote online.

Voting is due to end at 20:00 local time.

Vladimir Putin’s critic and former Deputy PM Boris Nemtsov has been shot dead in central Moscow, Russian officials say.

An unidentified gunman, in a car, shot Boris Nemtsov four times in the back as he crossed a bridge in view of the Kremlin, police say.

The Russian opposition leader died hours after appealing for support for a march on March 1 in Moscow against the war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has condemned the murder, the Kremlin says.

Vladimir Putin has assumed “personal control” of the investigation into the killing, said his spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

It “bears the hallmarks of a contract killing,” said Dmitry Peskov.

President Barack Obama condemned the “brutal murder” and called on the Russian government to conduct a “prompt, impartial and transparent investigation”.

Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, condemned the killing, saying in a tweet: “I am shocked and appalled key opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot. Killers must be brought to justice.”Boris Nemtsov killed in central Moscow

In a recent interview, Boris Nemtsov had said he feared Vladimir Putin would have him killed because of his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

Boris Nemtsov, 55, served as first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

He had earned a reputation as an economic reformer while governor of one of Russia’s biggest cities, Nizhny Novgorod.

Falling out of favor with Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, he became an outspoken opposition politician.

Boris Nemtsov was shot at around 23:40 on Friday, February 27, while crossing Moskvoretsky Bridge accompanied by a woman, Russia’s interior ministry said.

He was shot with a pistol from a white car which fled the scene, a police source told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

According to Russian-language news website Meduza, “several people” got out of a car and shot him.

One of the politician’s colleagues in his RPR-Parnassus party, Ilya Yashin, confirmed Boris Nemtsov’s death.

Flowers were left at the site of the shooting through the night.

In his last tweet, Boris Nemtsov sent out an appeal for Russia’s divided opposition to unite at an anti-war march he was planning for Sunday.

“If you support stopping Russia’s war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin’s aggression, come to the Spring March in Maryino on March 1,” he wrote.

Speaking earlier this month to Russia’s Sobesednik news website, Boris Nemtsov had spoken of his fears for his own life.

“I’m afraid Putin will kill me,” he said on February 10.

“I believe that he was the one who unleashed the war in the Ukraine,” Boris Nemtsov added.

“I couldn’t dislike him more.”

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In an interview for Russian television, President Vladimir Putin has said war with neighboring Ukraine is “unlikely”.

Vladimir Putin also stressed his support for the Minsk agreement as the best way to stabilize eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has said there is clear evidence Russia is helping the rebels in the east, something Russia denies.

Earlier, Ukraine’s military said rebel shelling had prevented them withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line.Vladimir Putin Ukraine war

In his interview, Vladimir Putin was asked if there was a real threat of war, given the situation in eastern Ukraine.

“I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope this will never happen,” he said.

Vladimir Putin said that if the Minsk agreement was implemented, eastern Ukraine would “gradually stabilize”.

“Europe is just as interested in that as Russia. No-one wants conflict on the edge of Europe, especially armed conflict,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin’s critic Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to 15 days in prison for handing out leaflets to publicize a forthcoming demonstration.

The Russian opposition leader’s imprisonment bars him from taking part in the planned rally on March 1.

Alexei Navalny was given a suspended sentence for defrauding two companies in December. He says the legal cases against him are motivated by his opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

He left the courthouse on February 19 in a police car and wearing handcuffs.

Alexei Navalny urged his followers to attend the rally against President Vladimir Putin’s policies.Alexei Navalny jailed 2015

The law he breached is one that restricts demonstrations.

“To ease the economic and political crisis we have to pressure the authorities. Let’s go to the anti-crisis rally,” Alexei Navalny said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Correspondents say that although Alexei Navalny has little chance of posing a serious challenge to Vladimir Putin, he had pledged to lead 100,000 demonstrators in the march, which he says is against Kremlin policies that are leading Russia into a severe economic crisis.

Alexei Navalny led Moscow street protests against President Vladimir Putin between 2011 and 2012.

Last year Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused of stealing 30 million rubles ($462,000) from two companies.

Oleg Navalny was given a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence, while his brother was given a suspended sentence that prosecutors say they will appeal against.

Critics of the Kremlin and the US say that Alexei Navalny’s case is an attempt to stifle political dissent.

Since he was sentenced, Alexei Navalny has taken an increasingly defiant stance, cutting off his house arrest tag in January.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin has denounced the Ukraine’s call as a destructive move.

The Ukrainian president’s call “raises suspicions that he wants to destroy the Minsk accords”, Vitaly Churkin said.

The Minsk ceasefire deal was reached a week ago but fighting round the strategic town of Debaltseve saw the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops there.

Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine also criticized the proposal.

Vitaly Churkin accused President Petro Poroshenko of seeking a new scheme instead of doing what he had signed up to.

“If one proposes new schemes right away, the question arises whether [the accords] will be respected,” he said.Ukraine war Debaltseve retreat

The leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic described the call for peacekeepers as a violation of the Minsk accords.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, the four parties to the Minsk accords, held further talks over the phone on February 19.

The French presidency said the ceasefire breaches were denounced and the leaders called for “the implementation of the full package of measures agreed in Minsk” including a full ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and the release of prisoners.

Petro Poroshenko called for UN-mandated peacekeepers to enforce the ceasefire after fighting continued following the rebel advance on Debaltseve.

A police mission by the European Union would be the best format for a peacekeeping operation, Petro Poroshenko said on his website.

It would help guarantee security “in a situation where the promise of peace is not being kept”, he told an emergency meeting of Ukraine’s national security and defense council.

Nearly 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers withdrew from Debaltseve on February 18.

Petro Poroshenko said the withdrawal had been organized, but that at least six soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded.

Earlier, a senior Ukrainian military official said 22 Ukrainian soldiers had died in Debaltseve since the ceasefire came into effect on February 15. Rebel claims of a much higher figure have been dismissed by the government.

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President Petro Poroshenko has warned that a deal to end the war in eastern Ukraine is in “great danger” after heavy fighting ahead of February 15 ceasefire.

The Ukrainian president also accused Russia of “significantly increasing” its offensive despite the peace agreement reached in Minsk on February 12.

Meanwhile, the US said it was very concerned by reports of heavy weapons coming across the border from Russia.

Shelling was heard in the rebel-held city of Donetsk early on Saturday, February 14.

Fierce battles are also said to be continuing around Debaltseve, a strategic government-held town almost encircled by rebel forces.

More than a dozen civilians are said to have died in shelling in eastern Ukraine on February 13.

It is unclear who was behind the shelling but both the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions accuse each other of targeting residential areas.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

France President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who together clinched the agreement in the Belarusian capital – are due to discuss the issue by phone over the weekend.

The UN Security Council will also meet in emergency session on February 15.

Correspondents say the fighting shows no sign of stopping.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Petro Mekhed said the rebels wanted to “raise their flag” over Debaltseve and the key port city of Mariupol before the midnight ceasefire kicked in.

“Ukraine is expecting an escalation and taking all necessary measures to be able to respond,” Petro Mekhed told reporters.

Rebel shelling killed two people in a cafe in Shchastya, near Luhansk, on February 13 as well as a child near a school in Artemivsk, a town near Debaltseve, according to Kiev-controlled regional authorities.

Meanwhile, the rebels said at least six people had died in shelling in the city of Donetsk and town of Horlivka. The rebels accuse government forces of shelling the towns.

“After what we achieved in Minsk this is not just shelling of Ukrainian civilians and residential neighborhoods – this is an attack on our Minsk achievements, without any explanations,” President Petro Poroshenko said.

“Unfortunately, after Minsk, Russia’s offensive operations have intensified,” he said, before adding: “We are still convinced that the Minsk achievements are in a big danger.”

There were also reports of a government offensive near Mariupol, the city between rebel-held eastern areas and the southern Crimea peninsula, which was annexed by Russia last March.

Pro-Russian rebels signed the peace agreement but key issues remain to be settled, including the situation in Debaltseve.

European leaders have warned Russia that it could face additional sanctions if the agreement is not respected.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the deal offered “a glimmer of hope”, but warned: “It is very important that words are followed by actions.”

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The US is studying the option of supplying lethal defensive arms to Ukraine if diplomacy fails to end the crisis in the east, President Barack Obama has said.

Russia had violated “every commitment” made in the failing Minsk agreement, he added, after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a new peace deal.

Barack Obama has come under pressure from senior US officials to supply arms, despite objections from Angela Merkel.

Russia denies accusations of sending troops and supplying the rebels.

The latest diplomatic efforts come amid renewed fighting between the pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian government troops, with fighting centered around the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve.

The rebels said on February 9 they had cut off a key supply road to the town, which is near the rebel-held city of Donetsk, but the military says the battle is ongoing.Barack Obama and Angela Merkel Ukraine talks 2015

Ukrainian government officials say nine soldiers and at least seven civilians have been killed in fighting over the last 24 hours.

The crisis in Ukraine has already claimed more than 5,300 lives and displaced 1.5 million people from their homes.

Angela Merkel met Barack Obama in Washington on February 9 to update him on Franco-German efforts to revive last year’s Minsk peace plan, which collapsed amid fighting over the winter.

The detailed proposals have not been released but the plan is thought to include a demilitarized zone of 50-70km (31-44 miles) around the current front line.

Four-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are due to be held in Belarus’s capital Minsk on February 11 to discuss the proposals.

Speaking alongside Angela Merkel, President Barack Obama said the option of lethal defensive weapons for the Ukrainian government remained on the table.

“If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options,” he said, adding that offering lethal arms was only one of the options under consideration.

Angela Merkel, who has made it clear she opposes sending lethal arms, acknowledged setbacks in efforts to reach a diplomatic solution with Russia over Ukraine, but said that they would continue.

Meanwhile Barack Obama criticized Russian aggression in Ukraine, saying that the borders of Europe could not be “redrawn at the barrel of a gun”.

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  • 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded in eastern Ukraine
  • Fatalities include 298 people on board flight MH17 shot down on July 17, 2014
  • 224 civilians killed in three-week period leading up to February 1, 2015Ukraine war human cost 2015
  • 5.2 million people estimated to be living in conflict areas
  • 921,640 internally displaced people within Ukraine, including 136,216 children
  • 600,000 fled to neighboring countries of whom more than 400,000 have gone to Russia

Source: Figures from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, February 3, and UN report, January 21, 2015

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President Vladimir Putin has renewed the blame on the West for the Ukrainian crisis, as he works on Franco-German proposals to end fighting between the government and pro-Russia rebels.

Western countries had broken pledges not to expand NATO and forced countries to choose between them and Russia, Vladimir Putin told an Egyptian newspaper.

The comments come amid new hopes of a peace deal on February 11.

Russia denies accusations of sending troops and supplying the rebels.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 5,300 lives and driven 1.5 million people from their homes.

At least nine Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the past 24 hours, officials say.

Photo RT

Photo RT

Fighting is said to be intense around the town of Debaltseve, near the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to brief President Barack Obama in Washington on February 9 on the peace plan Germany and France have tried to reach with Ukraine and Russia.

The Washington talks come as the US considers sending weapons to the Ukrainian government.

Angela Merkel told a security conference at the weekend that she could not “imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily”.

Secretary of State John Kerry has denied any rift with EU leaders, saying: “I keep hearing people trying to create one. We are united, we are working closely together.”

Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have been leading efforts to revive the Minsk peace plan, which collapsed amid fighting over the winter.

The detailed proposals have not been released but the plan is thought to include a demilitarized zone of 50-70km (31-44 miles) around the current front line.

The four leaders have announced plans to meet in Minsk on February 11 – provided agreement is reached in the meantime in talks in Berlin.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on February 9 there were hopes for a settlement but nothing had been agreed.

At the start of a visit to Egypt, President Putin renewed his attack on Western countries for their “hollow” promises not to expand NATO to include former Soviet countries, and therefore ignoring Russian interests.

There had been attempts, Vladimir Putin told Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper, “to tear states which had been parts of the former USSR [Soviet Union] off Russia and to prompt them to make an artificial choice <<between Russia and Europe>>”.

“We repeatedly warned the US and its Western allies about harmful consequences of their interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs but they did not listen to our opinion,” the Russian leader said.

Vladimir Putin went on to accuse them of supporting a “coup d’etat in Kiev” – a reference to the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last year.

Viktor Yanukovych lost power amid protests over his decision to scrap a deal that would have seen Ukraine establish closer ties with the European Union.

Since then, Russia has annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and rebels in the east have sought to establish full control over the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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Vladimir Putin is to discuss a peace plan for east Ukraine with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian leaders by phone.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are pushing a plan to end bloody fighting between government and rebel forces.

Meeting the Russian president in Moscow on February 6, they agreed to four-way talks with Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko on February 8.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in the east since April.

Thousands more have been injured and more than a million have fled their homes.

Ukraine’s military reported continued shelling on February 7, accusing the rebels of preparing new offensives, while the rebels accused the government itself of attacking along the line dividing their forces.

Petro Poroshenko has called on the West for support up to and including weapons.Ukraine peace plan Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and Petro Poroshenko

He made the plea at a security conference in Munich on February 7, when he brandished passports that he said were those of Russian troops in Ukraine.

Russia denies intervening directly in eastern Ukraine.

Angela Merkel told the conference in Munich that there was no guarantee diplomacy would succeed but it was “definitely worth trying”.

The plan is thought to be an attempt to revive a failed ceasefire deal signed in Minsk, in Belarus, in September. Since then, the rebels have seized more ground, raising alarm in Kiev and among Ukraine’s backers.

Francois Hollande said it would include a demilitarized zone of 31-44 miles around the current front line.

The French leader has described the Franco-German plan as “one of the last chances” to end the conflict.

“If we fail to find a lasting peace agreement, we know the scenario perfectly well – it has a name, it is called war,” Francois Hollande said.

The US is said to be considering pleas to send weapons to Ukraine.

Angela Merkel, however, said she could not “imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily”.

The statement put Angela Merkel in opposition to NATO’s top military commander, US Air Force general Philip Breedlove, who told reporters that Western allies should not “preclude out of hand the possibility of the military option”.

Vice-President Joe Biden said the US would “continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance not to encourage war, but to allow Ukraine to defend itself”.

“Let me be clear – we do not believe there is a military solution in Ukraine,” Joe Biden said.

“But let me be equally clear – we do not believe Russia has the right to do what they’re doing.”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has held “constructive” talks with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on efforts to end the conflict in east Ukraine, a Kremlin spokesman says.

Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel met for more than five hours.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had brought to Moscow a peace proposal whose details have not been released.

Russia is accused of arming pro-Russian separatists – a claim it denies.

The Kremlin also rejects claims by Ukraine and the West that its regular troops are fighting alongside the rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Clashes have left nearly 5,400 people dead since April 2014, the UN says.

A September ceasefire, signed in Minsk in Belarus, has failed to stop the violence. Since then the rebels have seized more ground, raising alarm in Kiev and among Ukraine’s backers.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

The peace proposal Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande took to Moscow on February 6 was crafted with the Ukrainian government the day before.

After the two leaders’ discussions with Vladimir Putin, French officials told AFP they had been “constructive and substantial”.

Dmitry Peskov said work was continuing on a joint document. Further talks will be held by phone on February 7, he added.

Earlier, Francois Hollande said the aim was not just a ceasefire but a “comprehensive agreement” – although Angela Merkel said it was “totally open” whether that could be achieved.

Major questions any plan would have to address include the route of any new ceasefire line – given the rebel advances of recent weeks – how to enforce it, and the future status of the conflict zone.

Moscow is still denying any direct role in the conflict, while Kiev insists above all that Ukraine must remain united, our correspondent says.

Washington is considering Ukrainian pleas for better weaponry to fend off the rebels, raising European fears of an escalation in the conflict and spurring the latest peace bid.

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French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are meeting Russia’s Vladimir Putin to try to end escalating fighting in Ukraine.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are taking to Moscow a peace proposal crafted in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on February 5, but details have not been released.

Meanwhile a truce has allowed civilians to leave Debaltseve, at the heart of the latest fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Russia is accused of arming pro-Russian separatists – a claim it denies.

The Kremlin also rejects claims by Ukraine and the West that its regular troops are fighting alongside the rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Clashes have left nearly 5,400 people dead since April 2014, the UN says.

A September ceasefire, signed in Minsk, Belarus, has failed to stop the violence. Since then the rebels have seized more ground, raising alarm in Kiev and among Ukraine’s backers.Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in Moscow peace talks

Before he left for Moscow on February 6, Francois Hollande said the goal of his visit was not just a ceasefire, but a “comprehensive agreement” – though Angela Merkel said it was “totally open” whether that could be achieved.

Meanwhile Vice-President Joe Biden accused Russia of “continuing to escalate the conflict” and “ignoring every agreement”.

Joe Biden was speaking in Brussels, where he is meeting top EU officials.

He accused Vladimir Putin of continuing “to call for new peace plans as his tanks roll through the Ukrainian countryside”.

He said Russia could “not be allowed to redraw the map of Europe”.

Ukraine is also set to dominate an annual multi-lateral security conference in Munich.

The fighting has intensified in recent weeks after a rebel offensive, and a temporary truce was declared in Debaltseve on February 6, where Ukrainian forces are fighting to hold the town against surrounding rebels.

Convoys of buses travelled to the town on Friday to evacuate civilians who had been forced to shelter underground from the bombing.

They were escorted by monitors from the OSCE security watchdog, Reuters reported.

Washington is considering Ukrainian pleas for better weaponry to fend off the rebels, raising European fears of an escalation in the conflict and spurring the latest peace bid.

On February5, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel examined the peace proposal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, without releasing any details.

Moscow says it is ready for “constructive dialogue” – though still denying any direct role in the conflict – while Kiev insists above all that Ukraine must remain united.

A spokesman for the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would discuss “the fastest possible end to the civil war in south-eastern Ukraine”.

Some 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since April 2014, when the rebels seized a big swathe of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have arrived in Ukraine’s capital Kiev to present a new peace initiative.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is also in Kiev, said the US wanted a diplomatic solution, but would not close its eyes to Russian aggression.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels has killed more than 5,000 people since last April.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine and sending regular troops across the border.

Russia denies direct involvement but says some Russian volunteers are fighting alongside the rebels.

Speaking at a joint news conference with John Kerry, Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: “We need to get peace. But we will never consider anything that undermines territorial integrity… of Ukraine.”

John Kerry accused Russia of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, saying that Russia had been acting with “impunity”, crossing the Ukrainian border “at will with weapons [and] personnel”.

“We are choosing a peaceful solution through diplomacy – but you cannot have a one-sided peace,” he said.

John Kerry added that President Barack Obama was still “reviewing all options”, including the possibility of providing “defensive weapons” to Ukraine, due to the dangerous escalation in violence.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

The US is currently only providing “non-lethal” assistance.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said any decision by the US to supply weapons to Ukraine would “inflict colossal damage to Russian-American relations”.

Several senior Western officials have also expressed concern at the prospect of US arms being sent to Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier likened the option to “throwing more weapons on the bonfire”, while NATO commander Philip Breedlove said governments must take into account that the move “could trigger a more strident reaction from Russia”.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel arrived in Kiev on February 5, in what appeared to be a speedily arranged visit.

They met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who thanked them for their visit at “a very urgent time”.

Francois Hollande had said that he and Angela Merkel would present a new peace proposal based on the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, which could be “acceptable to all”.

However, he warned that diplomacy “cannot go on indefinitely”.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 6.

A spokesman for the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would discuss “the fastest possible end to the civil war in south-eastern Ukraine”.

Correspondents say it is not clear how the latest attempt will differ from previous, aborted peace efforts – but there is speculation that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel hope to discourage the US from supplying Ukraine with weapons.

The talks in Kiev come as NATO unveils details of a plan to bolster its military presence in Eastern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis.

A new rapid reaction “spearhead” force of up to 5,000 troops is expected to be announced, with its lead units able to deploy at two days’ notice.

NATO is also establishing a network of small command centers in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, officials said on February 5 that the European Union is adding 19 people, including five Russians, to its sanctions list over the Ukraine crisis.

Nine “entities” will also be targeted by the sanctions, which were reportedly agreed at an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers last week.

Fighting has intensified in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks amid a rebel offensive.

The fiercest fighting has been near the town of Debaltseve, where rebels are trying to surround Ukrainian troops. The town is a crucial rail hub linking the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Some 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since last April, when the rebels seized a big swathe of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has accepted an invitation to Moscow in May, South Korea’s Yonhap reports.

The news agency cites a written response from the Kremlin, but says it does not mention Kim Jong-un by name.

Yonhap quotes a Unification Ministry official as saying the reference to the leader could be ambiguous, as Kim Yong-un is the nominal head of state.

Kim Jong-un has not made any overseas visits since taking power in North Korea in late 2011.

His first destination will been keenly watched for what it might indicate about his policies and strategy.

Earlier this month, reports emerged suggesting Russia could be the recipient of Kim Jong-un’s first official visit.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists on January 21 that Russia had invited Kim Jong-un to the May 9 celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two.Kim Jong un to visit Russia in May

He said that the “first signal was positive” from the North Korean government.

Yonhap news agency said the response from the Russian presidential office confirmed that North Korea’s leader was among heads of state from 20 nations who had confirmed plans to attend.

However, the response did not specify Kim Jong-un by name and said: “The list of attendees has not been finalized yet, as we continue a process of confirming the attendance of those invited,” Yonhap reported.

There has been no statement from North Korea. Kim Yong-un, whose official title is president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, has more traditionally represented North Korea at overseas events.

Visits by Kim Jong-un’s late father, Kim Jong-il, were never announced ahead of his departure.

The late Kim Jong-il visited Russia in August 2011, shortly before his death. But he paid more regular visits to China which, under his leadership, was seen as Pyongyang’s closest ally.

If Kim Jong-un did choose to visit Moscow ahead of Beijing, the decision would be seen as significant – and as a snub to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In recent years, China has come under pressure from Japan, South Korea and the US to exert more pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear program.

Beijing has, on some occasions, expressed exasperation with its northern neighbor via official media channels.

It also backed UN resolutions strengthening sanctions on Pyongyang after its recent missile and nuclear tests in 2013.

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Alexei Navalny and more than 100 other demonstrators have been arrested at a rally in central Moscow, activists say.

The Russian opposition leader had urged protesters to gather in Manezh Square near the Kremlin after his brother, Oleg Navalny, was sentenced to jail.

Police detained Alexei Navalny at the protest and took him home, where he has been under house arrest since February.

Alexei Navalny says the legal cases against him and his brother are motivated by his opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

Hours earlier, a court in Moscow handed Alexei Navalny a suspended prison sentence of three-and-a-half years for defrauding two firms. His brother Oleg was given a three-and-a-half-year custodial sentence for the same offence.

Alexei Navalny accused authorities of trying to punish him by jailing his brother, and called for his supporters to gather in central Moscow in protest.

Around 2,000 people gathered in temperatures below -10C.Alexei Navalny arrested at Moscow rally

Pro-government protesters are staging a counter-demonstration nearby.

At least 171 people were detained by police said OVD Info, a campaign group that monitors political detentions. However there was no official confirmation of the number of arrests.

Upon arriving at the rally, police detained Alexei Navalny and drove him to his house in a police van.

He said he was not allowed out of his flat and that five soldiers stood guard outside.

After his arrest, Alexei Navalny sent a tweet saying that he “had not got as far as the square”.

“I call on everyone not to leave until they are forced to,” he said.

“They cannot arrest everyone.”

Just before his arrest, Alexei Navalny told reporters that his motivation was “not my brother, my family, myself or some specific people” but “this disgusting outrage that has been going for many years”.

Prosecutors had demanded 10 years in prison for Alexei Navalny and eight years for his brother Oleg.

Alexei Navalny has been under house arrest since February as part of a separate five-year suspended sentence for the alleged theft of 16 million rubles from a timber firm in 2009.

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