Russia dismisses Islamic State responsibility claim for deadly blast

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian investigators on Friday dismissed the veracity of a claim by the Islamic State militant group that it was responsible for a deadly apartment building explosion in December that killed 39 people.

The claim was made in the Al Naba newspaper on Thursday evening and said IS militants had been behind the deadly explosion in the city of Magnitogorsk at the end of December. No proof was provided to back the assertion.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement that the claim should not be trusted and said investigators were looking at all possible causes of the blast.

Their primary theory was that a gas leak was to blame, the statement said.

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Super Putin: Russian president expected to win election

An exhibition lauding Russia’s president opened days after Putin made the widely expected announcement that he was to run for president in this year’s elections.

    An exhibition lauding Russia’s president opened days after President Vladimir Putin made the widely expected announcement that he was to run for president in this year’s elections.

    Vladimir Putin is expected to win another 6 years in power when Russians go to the polls in March.

    The country has a tightly managed electoral system – candidates are carefully screened, and few surprises are expected.

    In the latest of our series that is looking ahead to the big stories of this year.

    Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands reports from Moscow.

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    Russia's Sovcomflot IPO hobbled by weak freight markets: CEO

    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot said on Tuesday that uncertain conditions in the freight market are delaying its long-planned initial public offering (IPO).

    The Russian government has weighed a listing of Sovcomflot for years as part of broader privatization plans, but obstacles ranging from weak markets to international sanctions placed on Russians over Moscow’s role in Ukraine crisis have prevented an IPO.

    The Russian economy ministry has said it had hoped to raise 24 billion rubles ($358 million) from the sale of a stake in Sovcomflot.

    Sovcomflot’s chief executive Sergei Frank told reporters that shipping markets are expected to improve this year, with signs of a recovery seen in the fourth quarter of last year.

    But the company will wait for the right moment to list its shares on the market, Frank added.

    Over the past year, as the oil price has risen, appetite has grown in the cruise ship industry as well as in the container, cargo and tanker sectors. It is still fragile, according to Frank.

    “We need that the markets return to their historical average. The fourth quarter was a joy for us, but it is not a record one,” he said.

    Russian energy giants including Gazprom Neft (SIBN.MM), Novatek (NVTK.MM) and Sakhalin Energy, which runs Russia’s liquefied natural gas plant (LNG) in the Far East, are among Sovcomflot’s customers.

    Sovcomflot has benefited from Russia’s plans to raise its global share of the global LNG market. It has signed a strategic agreement with Russia’s top LNG producer Novatek (NVTK.MM) in June.

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    US threatens sanctions over Russia-Germany gas pipeline

    FRANKFURT (AFP) – The US ambassador to Germany has warned of sanctions against firms linked to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, the American embassy in Berlin confirmed Sunday (Jan 13).

    A letter envoy Richard Grenell sent to several businesses “reminds that any company operating in the Russian energy export pipeline sector… is in danger under CAATSA of US sanctions,” an embassy spokesman told AFP.

    The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) adopted in 2017 targets Iran, Russia and North Korea.

    The letter by Grenell, a close ally of President Donald Trump, “is not meant to be a threat, but a clear message of US policy,” the spokesman said.

    “The only thing that could be considered blackmail in this situation would be the Kremlin having leverage over future gas supplies,” he said.

    Construction has already begun on Nord Stream 2, set to double the capacity of an existing pipeline across the Baltic Sea.

    Alongside Russian giant Gazprom, firms including Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper, Dutch-British Shell, France’s Engie and Austria’s OMV are involved in the project.

    Combined with the planned TurkStream pipeline across the Black Sea, Nord Stream 2 would do away with the need to transport natural gas to Europe via Ukraine – robbing the country of a factor shielding it from Russian aggression, Grenell said.

    The two countries are in conflict over the eastern part of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014.

    “Firms supporting the construction of the two pipelines are actively undermining the security of Ukraine and Europe,” Grenell wrote.

    Washington’s fears about the pipeline are shared by a number of eastern European Union countries including Poland, and the European Parliament last month passed a resolution condemning the construction.

    But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, backed by France and Austria, has so far insisted it is a “purely economic project” that will ensure cheaper, more reliable gas supplies.

    The veteran leader – a key player in Moscow-Kiev peace talks – says Ukrainian interests will be protected as some Russian gas will still be transported via the country once Nord Stream 2 is online.

    German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also weighed in on the transatlantic row last week, saying “European energy policy should be decided in Europe, not in the United States.”

    Even the opposition Left party condemned Grenell’s intervention, with deputy parliamentary leader Fabio de Masi accusing him of behaving like the “governor in Germany of an emperor from Washington”.

    He urged the government to summon Grenell for a reprimand.

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    Treasury's Mnuchin defends U.S. decision to lift sanctions on Russian firms

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted on Thursday that the Trump administration would keep tight control on Russian companies linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, despite last month’s decision to ease restrictions on the firms.

    “Treasury will be vigilant in ensuring that En+ and Rusal meet these commitments. If these companies fail to comply with the terms, they will face very real and swift consequences, including the reimposition of sanctions,” Mnuchin said in a statement released before a closed-door briefing for the House of Representatives.

    Democrats earlier this week asked Mnuchin to conduct a briefing for the entire chamber on the sanctions decision, one of their first actions since the party took control of the House last week.

    The newly appointed Democratic leaders of seven House committees wrote to Mnuchin on Tuesday expressing concerns about the sanctions decision. They cited their committees’ responsibilities to conduct oversight of Russia’s attempts to interfere in U.S. elections and other “hostile actions.”

    Mnuchin served as the national finance chairman for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Democrats have made clear they plan to investigate Russia and its possible links to the 2016 presidential election thoroughly now that they control one house of Congress.

    Mnuchin had not been a focus of congressional probes.

    In their letter, the committee chairmen and women also asked that implementation of the decision to ease the sanctions be postponed. There was no immediate indication that the administration would do so.

    The Treasury announced on Dec. 20 that it would lift sanctions imposed in April on the core businesses of Deripaska, including aluminum giant Rusal, its parent En+ and power firm EuroSibEnergo, watering down the toughest penalties imposed since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

    The companies agreed to restructure to reduce Deripaska’s stakes and the oligarch remains on the sanctions list.

    “One of the goals of sanctions is to change behavior, and the proposed delistings of companies that Deripaska will no longer control show that sanctions can result in positive change,” Mnuchin said.

    Lawmakers could try to pass a resolution of disapproval of the Treasury’s decisions, but its passage would require the approval of both the Democratic-majority House and the Senate, where President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a majority of the seats and are unlikely to break with his policy.

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    Russia investigates BBC over IS quotes

    Russia’s media regulator says it has found material on BBC websites that “broadcast the ideological attitudes of international terrorist organisations”.

    Roskomnadzor highlighted quotes it found from the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

    The regulator said it would now review the BBC’s output for compliance with its Russian broadcast licence.

    Last year, UK regulator Ofcom criticised Russian news channel RT’s coverage in Britain.

    Ofcom found that Kremlin-backed RT, formerly known as Russia Today, had breached TV impartiality rules over six weeks between 17 March and 26 April.

    It was especially critical of RT’s coverage of the nerve agent attack in Salisbury on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The UK government and its Western allies blamed the Russian government for the attack.

    Roskomnadzor said in a statement that quotes from Baghdadi found in news reports on the BBC Russian service website were being studied to see “whether these materials comply with Russian anti-extremism legislation”.

    It also said that it would be carrying out a review of the BBC’s broadcasting in Russia from 14-31 January and had requested all the necessary documentation from the corporation.

    The BBC said in December: “As everywhere else in the world, the BBC works in Russia in full compliance with the country’s laws and regulations to deliver independent news and information to its audiences.”

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    Manafort says any misstatements 'unintentional': court filing

    (Reuters) – Any “misstatements” made by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to federal prosecutors were “unintentional” and he would not seek a hearing to contest the allegation he lied, Manafort’s lawyers said in a court filing.

    Manafort was responding to allegations in December by the U.S. special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election that Manafort had told “multiple discernible lies” to investigators, breaking a plea agreement struck in September.

    Manafort’s lawyers had been given until Monday to decide whether they would challenge the allegations, a move that would require a court hearing to weigh evidence, or simply ask the government to move on to sentencing. The filing was submitted under seal on Monday, and a redacted version released on Tuesday.

    The former Trump campaign chief’s lawyers said their client has been suffering from gout, anxiety and depression and that he never purposely lied to them during his 12 interview sessions with the special counsel and other prosecutors.

    “The defense contests the Government’s conclusion and contends that any alleged misstatements, to the extent they occurred at all, were not intentional,” Manafort’s lawyers said in the filing to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, who is handling one of two cases against Manafort.

    When Manafort pleaded guilty in September in Berman Jackson’s court, he promised to cooperate fully with U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office and other Justice Department probes in return for a recommendation of leniency at sentencing.

    But Mueller’s office said Manafort had lied about at least five subjects, including his interactions with former business partner Konstanin Kilimnik, who has been accused by prosecutors of having ties to Russian intelligence, and about his contacts with Trump administration officials.

    Manafort, who earned millions of dollars for his political consulting work for Ukraine’s former pro-Russia government, has emerged as a key figure in Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    In addition to his ties to Kilimnik, Manafort had for years worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in April for allegedly supporting the Kremlin’s “malign activity” around the world.

    Manafort, 69, was convicted in August in a separate case in Alexandria, Virginia, for evading taxes on $16 million earned as a political consultant in Ukraine and lying to banks to get loans. He is due to be sentenced in that case next month.

    Russia has denied meddling in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion between his campaign and Moscow.

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    Russia rules out swap deal for spy suspect

    Russia has dismissed suggestions that a former US marine accused of spying could be involved in a prisoner swap.

    Paul Whelan, 48, was detained in Moscow last month. His family says he was simply visiting Russia to attend a wedding.

    His lawyer had raised the possibility of a prisoner exchange, telling ABC News that “it is not excluded” as a means of resolving the case.

    But a Russian minister now says that it was “incorrect” to suggest this idea.

    “It is impossible and incorrect to raise the issue in this way, when official charges have not even been put forward yet,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the RIA Novosti news agency on Friday.

    He added that the situation was “very serious”.

    Russian news agencies, and Mr Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, had previously said that the ex-marine had been charged,

    On Thursday, Mr Zherebenkov also appeared to suggest that a prisoner swap would be possible.

    “The thing is that in this category of cases, exchanges often happen,” he told ABC News.

    “It is not excluded – such a practice exists. It exists and there are a lot of Russian citizens being held in America.”

    Meanwhile, Russia says the US has detained one of its citizens on the Northern Mariana Islands in the north-west Pacific.

    Its foreign ministry said on Friday that Dmitry Makarenko had been detained by the FBI and moved to Florida, but the US has not yet confirmed this.

    Who is Paul Whelan?

    Mr Whelan was born in Canada to British parents but moved to the US as a child. He is currently director of global security for Michigan-based automotive components supplier BorgWarner.

    He is a citizen of four countries – the US, the UK, Canada, and the Irish Republic.

    Mr Whelan joined the Marine Reserves in 1994 and rose to the rank of staff sergeant in 2004. He served in Iraq for several months in 2004 and 2006.

    He was convicted in a 2008 court martial on charges related to larceny and received a bad-conduct discharge. Details of the charges have not been made public.

    His twin brother David Whelan said he had been visiting Russia for business and pleasure since 2007.

    What was he doing in Russia?

    Mr Whelan arrived in Russia on 22 December to attend a wedding and had planned to visit Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, in addition to Moscow before flying home on 6 January, his brother said.

    He was arrested in Moscow on 28 December, having taken a group of wedding guests on a tour of the Kremlin museums in the morning. He was last heard from in the early evening and failed to show up for the wedding, David Whelan said.

    He has been charged with espionage and, if found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in jail.

    Russia’s FSB state security agency has given few details, saying only that he was detained “during an act of espionage”, a wording which implies that he was caught red-handed, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford reports.

    Spy scandals have erupted between Russia and America at regular intervals since the Cold War, while Russia’s actions in Ukraine since 2014, and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, have led to strained relations.

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    Grand jury extended in U.S. special counsel's Trump-Russia probe

    (Reuters) – The term of the grand jury being used by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign has been extended, an aide to the judge overseeing it said on Friday.

    The extension is a sign that Mueller is not done presenting evidence before the grand jury in his investigation of U.S. allegations of Russian interference in the election and any possible coordination between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.

    The grand jury was impaneled by the U.S. District Court in Washington in July 2017 for an 18-month term, the limit under federal rules. The term can be extended if the court determines it to be in the public interest to do so.

    “The Chief Judge has confirmed that the term of Grand Jury 17-01 has been extended,” Lisa Klem, special assistant to Chief Judge Beryl Howell said in a statement.

    Howell did not confirm any length of the extension, Klem said.

    A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

    A number of Trump’s allies, including his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have repeatedly called on Mueller to wrap up his investigation.

    Trump has called the investigation a “witch hunt” and has denied collusion with Moscow. Russia has denied meddling in the election, contrary to the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that have said Moscow used hacking and propaganda to try to sow discord in the United States and boost Republican Trump’s chances against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

    Mueller’s investigation and other inquiries have clouded Trump’s two years in office. Mueller has secured more than 30 indictments and guilty pleas and has spawned at least four federal probes.

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