Ukraine president says Trump didn’t seek to blackmail him

By Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday that U.S. President Donald Trump did not seek to blackmail him during a phone call in July or a meeting in September.

Zelenskiy said he had not known that U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been blocked at the time of the call. Having been made aware of this by his defense minister later, he raised the issue during a separate meeting in September in Poland with Vice President Mike Pence.

The U.S. House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry against Trump, focused on whether he used congressionally approved aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s main Democratic rivals as he seeks re-election in 2020.

Trump has made allegations, without evidence, that Biden engaged in improper dealings in Ukraine. Biden’s son Hunter was on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

Zelenskiy told reporters that his aim in having a phone call with Trump was to arrange a subsequent meeting and that he had asked the White House to change its rhetoric on Ukraine.

He said Kiev was open to a joint investigation into Biden but added that Ukraine was an independent country with independent law enforcement agencies that he could not influence.

“There was no blackmail. This was not the subject of our conversation,” Zelenskiy said about his call with Trump, speaking to reporters in a day-long series of televised briefings with the press, held at a Kiev food court.

Zelenskiy said there were no conditions attached to him meeting Trump, including whether he should investigate the activities of Hunter at Burisma.

The White House published its summary of the call between Zelenskiy and Trump in September. Asked whether the Ukrainian version matched up to the U.S. one, Zelenskiy said: “I didn’t even check, but I think that it matches completely.”

Biden for the first time on Wednesday made a direct call for Trump’s impeachment. Trump meanwhile continued to paint the probe as a partisan smear and accused the U.S. intelligence officer who filed the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment row of having political motives.

Zelenskiy said he had no desire to interfere in the U.S. election.

Zelenskiy said he had been made aware by his defense minister that Washington had frozen military aid to Ukraine.

He raised the issue at a meeting with Pence in Warsaw when they met at a commemoration to mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.

“I told him … please help to resolve it,” Zelenskiy recalls asking Pence. “And after our meeting America unblocked the aid.”

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Maria Tsvetkova and Matthias Williams; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by John Stonestreet and Peter Graff)

Pompeo says he was on phone call that triggered Trump impeachment drive

By David Brunnstrom and Patricia Zengerle

ROME/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged on Wednesday that he listened in on the telephone call between Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart that prompted a House of Representatives impeachment inquiry against the Republican U.S. president.

The admission by Pompeo, a key Trump ally, moved the top U.S. diplomat closer to the center of the scandal and raised further questions about his role in the administration’s interactions with Ukraine, including the recall of the U.S. ambassador to Kiev earlier this year.

The Democratic-led House last week launched its impeachment inquiry, which threatens Trump’s presidency, in the aftermath of a complaint brought by a whistleblower within the U.S. intelligence community over Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a July 25 phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable U.S. ally to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election to harm a domestic political rival for Trump’s personal political benefit.

“I was on the phone call,” Pompeo told reporters during a visit to Italy.

Pompeo said the call was in the context of U.S. policymaking in Ukraine, including “taking down the Russia threat,” rooting out corruption in government and boosting the economy. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Pompeo was on the call.

Trump made his request to Zelenskiy shortly after he had frozen nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump’s request on the call. The aid money was later provided to Ukraine. Democrats have accused Trump of using taxpayer money as leverage on Ukraine.

Trump, who is seeking a second four-year term as president, has denied wrongdoing and has assailed the impeachment probe.

In an intensifying battle between House Democrats and Trump’s administration, Democratic-led committees have subpoenaed Pompeo and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as well as documents. They will begin depositions of current and former State Department officials this week.

The department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, was due to brief congressional staff on Wednesday to address Ukraine-related documents that have been subpoenaed, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

‘FUNDAMENTAL VALUES’

Pompeo on Tuesday objected to House efforts to obtain depositions and accused Democrats of bullying and intimidation.

Asked about his concerns, Pompeo said State Department employees had been contacted directly by lawmakers or their staff and told not to talk to the State Department’s legal counsel. He said, however, that he would cooperate with Congress.

“We will, of course, do our constitutional duty to cooperate with this co-equal branch but we are going to do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental values of the American system,” Pompeo said.

The Democratic chairmen of three House committees have accused Pompeo of intimidating witnesses and said doing so is illegal. They warned Pompeo on Tuesday that he is considered “a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry” based on his role in Trump’s call with Zelenskiy.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings intends to subpoena the White House for Ukraine-related records on Friday after what he described as “flagrant disregard of multiple voluntary requests for documents,” according to a memo he sent to the panel.

According to a summary of the July call released by the White House, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter in coordination with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Giuliani.

Hunter Biden had sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been under investigation by Kiev.

The prospect that Trump solicited Ukraine’s help against his potential challenger next year has infuriated Democrats, many of whom blame the loss of the 2016 presidential election on Russian interference. Moscow has denied interfering in that campaign.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he saw no evidence of pressure in Trump’s July conversation with Zelenskiy and added that there was nothing wrong with the U.S. president asking for an investigation into potential corruption.

U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a scheme of hacking and propaganda to boost the Republican Trump’s candidacy and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Kurt Volker, who resigned last Friday as Trump’s special representative for Ukraine, was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to give a deposition to House staff on Thursday, the day he had been asked to appear. Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May, has agreed to appear on Oct. 11. In his phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news.”

With their deep knowledge of Ukraine, testimony by Yovanovitch and Volker could be especially important to the impeachment probe.

The inquiry could lead to approval of articles of impeachment – or formal charges – against Trump in the House. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to remove him from office. The president’s fellow Republicans control the Senate and have shown little appetite for removing him.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Washington Katya Golubkova in Moscow; Writing by Patricia Zengerle and Paul Simao; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump pressed Ukraine president to probe Biden activities: call summary

By Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump asked Ukraine’s president in a July phone call to investigate whether a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, had shut down an investigation into a gas company that employed his son, according to a summary of the call released by the Trump administration on Wednesday.

Setting up a dramatic political showdown that threatens Trump’s presidency, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday said the Democratic-led chamber was launching an official impeachment inquiry and directed six committees to proceed with investigations of the president’s actions.

Democrats have accused Trump, a Republican who is seeking re-election next year, of soliciting Ukraine’s help to smear Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, before the 2020 election.

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump said in the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to the summary provided by the Justice Department.

“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me,” Trump said, according to the memo.

The call occurred after Trump had ordered the U.S. government to freeze nearly $400 million in American aid to Ukraine. The administration later released the aid.

The House inquiry could lead to articles of impeachment in the House that could trigger a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office.

Trump told Zelenskiy that Attorney General William Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, would reach out to him about re-opening the investigation into the Ukrainian gas company.

But Trump did not ask Barr to contact Ukraine, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, and Barr has not communicated with Ukraine about a possible investigation or any other subject. Barr, a Trump appointee, first found out about the conversation several weeks after it took place, Kupec said.

Trump told Zelenskiy to speak with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a political ally who has no formal role in the U.S. government. Zelenskiy said one of his assistants had already spoken with Giuliani and that they looked forward to another meeting when the former New York mayor came to Ukraine, according to the summary of the call.

Trump has withstood repeated scandals since taking office in 2017. House Democrats had considered, but never moved ahead with, pursuing articles of impeachment over Trump’s actions relating to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election aimed at boosting his candidacy.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the House has the power to impeach a president for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Democrats currently control the House and Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate.

“The actions of the Trump presidency revealed a dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said on Tuesday.

Justice Department officials concluded last week that Trump’s conduct on the call did not amount to a criminal violation of campaign finance law because what he was asking for – an investigation of a political rival – did not amount to a quantifiable “thing of value,” said a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The department’s Office of Legal Counsel, however, said the complaint had been referred to the department’s criminal division for review.

Trump, who on Twitter on Tuesday called the House impeachment inquiry “Witch Hunt garbage,” in recent days has defended his actions in the Ukraine matter as appropriate.

On Tuesday, Trump said the call with Ukraine’s president was “perfect” and “couldn’t have been nicer,” adding, “There was no pressure put on them whatsoever.” Trump has repeatedly suggested wrongdoing by Biden and his son but has offered no evidence to back up the assertion.

Biden, who served as U.S. vice president from 2009 to 2017, is leading a field of other Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to face Trump, who is seeking a second four-year term in the November 2020 election.

AID TO UKRAINE

The United States has been giving military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The $391.5 million in aid at issue in the current controversy was approved by the U.S. Congress to help Ukraine deal with an insurgency by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Trump on Sunday acknowledged that he discussed Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, who had worked for a company drilling for gas in Ukraine, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Trump on Monday denied trying to coerce Zelenskiy in the July 25 phone call to launch a corruption investigation into Biden and his son in return for the U.S. military aid.

Trump has offered differing reasons for why he wanted the money for Ukraine frozen, initially saying it was because of corruption in Ukraine and then saying it was because he wanted European countries like France and Germany, not the United States, to take the lead in providing assistance to Kiev.

The current controversy arose after a whistleblower from within the U.S. intelligence community brought a complaint with an internal watchdog relating to Trump’s conversation with Zelenskiy. Even though federal law calls for such complaints to be disclosed to Congress, the Trump administration has not done so.

Pelosi on Tuesday said Trump’s actions had “seriously violated the Constitution,” and accused his administration of violations of federal law.

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday, with no objections from Trump’s fellow Republicans, for a resolution calling for the whistleblower’s report to be sent to Congress. The House is due to vote on a similar non-binding resolution on Wednesday.

The Justice Department concluded that the whistleblower complaint did not need to be shared with Congress because the relevant law only covers conduct by intelligence officials, not the president, according to a legal analysis released by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

U.S. intelligence agencies and a special counsel named by the Justice Department previously concluded that Russia boosted Trump’s 2016 presidential election bid with a campaign of hacking and propaganda aimed at harming his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. records 33 new measles cases, raising year’s total to 1,077

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

(Reuters) – The United States recorded 33 new measles cases last week, bringing the number of confirmed cases this year to 1,077 in the worst outbreak of the virus since 1992, federal health officials said on Monday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease rose 3% in the week ended June 20 from the prior week. The 2019 outbreak, which has spread to 28 states, is the worst since 1992, when 2,126 cases were recorded.

Health experts say the virus has spread among school-age children whose parents declined to give them the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which confers immunity to the disease. A vocal fringe of U.S. parents, some in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, cite concerns that the vaccine may cause autism, despite scientific studies that have debunked such claims.

The disease has mostly affected children who have not received the vaccine.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

CDC officials have warned that the country risks losing its measles elimination status if the ongoing outbreak, which began in October 2018 in New York, continues until October 2019.

The outbreak has escalated since 82 people in 2018 and more than 40 people in 2019 brought measles to the United States from other countries, most frequently Ukraine, Israel and the Philippines, federal officials said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and Susan Thomas)

Russians, Ukrainian to face murder charges over downing of Flight MH17

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

By Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch

NIEUWEGEIN, Netherlands (Reuters) – Three Russians and a Ukrainian will face murder charges for the deaths of 298 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, the international investigative team said on Wednesday.

The suspects are likely to be tried in absentia in proceedings set to start in the Netherlands next March. Dutch authorities said Russia has not cooperated with the inquiry and is not expected to surrender defendants.

“These suspects are seen to have played an important role in the death of 298 innocent civilians,” Dutch Chief Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said.

“Although they did not push the button themselves, we suspect them of close cooperation to get the (missile launcher) where it was, with the aim to shoot down an airplane.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry denied that it had not cooperated while saying on Wednesday the investigation was intended to damage Moscow’s reputation.

“Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Dutch Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said in a letter to parliament the Netherlands had taken unspecified “diplomatic steps” against Moscow for failing to fully comply with legal requests or providing incorrect information.

MH17 was shot out of the sky on July 17, 2014 over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Everyone aboard died.

The Dutch-led international team tasked with assigning criminal responsibility for the plane’s destruction named the four suspects as Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. It said international arrest warrants for the four had been issued.

Girkin, 48, a vocal and battle-hardened Russian nationalist, is believed to live in Moscow where he makes regular public appearances. He is a commentator on Russian and foreign affairs via his own website and YouTube channel.

“The rebels did not shoot down the Boeing,” Girkin told Reuters on Wednesday without elaborating.

Ukrainian authorities said they would try to detain Kharchenko, the suspect believed to be on their territory.

“The Russian Federation must now cooperate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said. There were 10 Britons on the flight.

RUSSIAN MISSILE

Most of the passengers were Dutch. The joint investigation team formed by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine found that the plane was downed by a Russian missile.

Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin called MH17’s downing a “terrible tragedy” but said Moscow was not to blame and there are other explanations for what happened.

Asked if she expected the suspects to attend the trial, Silene Fredriksz, whose son Bryce was on the plane, said: “No, I don’t think so. But I don’t care. I just want the truth, and this is the truth.”

The investigation team said Girkin was a former Russian FSB security service colonel who served as minister of defense of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014.

It said Dubinsky was head of the military intelligence agency of DNR, while Pulatov headed a second department of the agency. Kharchenko was head of a reconnaissance battalion for the second department, it said.

Prosecutors have said the missile system that brought down the airliner came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

(Additional reporting by Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Christian Lowe, Anastasia Teterevleva and Maria Vasilyeva in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Turkey breaks up smuggling ring that brought thousands of migrants to Europe

FILE PHOTO: Migrants in a dinghy paddle their way on the Mediterranean Sea to attempt crossing to the Greek island of Kos, as a Turkish Coast Guard ship patrols off the shores off Bodrum, Turkey, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police said on Wednesday they had detained the leaders of what they called Europe’s biggest people-smuggling ring, which helped thousands of irregular immigrants reach Europe from the Middle East.

Twenty people, including ringleader Akbar Omar Tawfeeq, were detained in operations in four Turkish provinces after a year-long investigation into the organization, Istanbul police said.

The network mainly helped Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian nationals cross into European countries from Turkey by land and sea, police said, adding that the group had also worked with other smuggling groups in Ukraine, Italy and Greece.

As part of the operations, police detained 569 irregular immigrants and seized six vehicles and six boats, they said in a statement. The smuggling group, whose leaders are mainly from northern Iraq, earned an average 2 million euros annually.

Video footage released by police showed special operations police breaking down the door of the suspects’ residence and seizing phones, drugs and digital material.

More than a million migrants and refugees, many fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, arrived in the European Union in 2015. Turkey was one of the main launch points for the dangerous sea leg of their journey, on which thousands died.

Numbers declined sharply in the following year when Turkey, in exchange for 3 billion euros in European Union aid and a promise to ease visa restrictions for Turks, began to exert more control on migrants trying to cross to Europe via its territory.

Overall Mediterranean arrivals to the European Union, including migrants making the longer and more perilous crossing from north Africa to Italy, stood at 172,301 in 2017, down from 362,753 in 2016 and 1,015,078 in 2015, according to U.N. data.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Frances Kerry)

WHO issues warning as measles infects 34,000 in Europe this year

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 34,000 people across Europe caught measles in the first two months of 2019, with the vast majority of cases in Ukraine, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday as it urged authorities to ensure vulnerable people get vaccinated.

The death toll among 34,300 cases reported across 42 countries in the WHO’s European region reached 13, with the virus killing people in Ukraine – which is suffering a measles epidemic – as well as in Romania and Albania. The risk is that outbreaks may continue to spread, the WHO warned.

“If outbreak response is not timely and comprehensive, the virus will find its way into more pockets of vulnerable individuals and potentially spread to additional countries within and beyond the region,” it said in a statement.

“Every opportunity should be used to vaccinate susceptible children, adolescents and adults.”

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can kill and cause blindness, deafness or brain damage. It can be prevented with two doses of an effective vaccine, but – in part due to pockets of unvaccinated people – it is currently spreading in outbreaks in many parts of the world including in the United States, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Europe, the majority of measles cases so far in 2019 are in Ukraine, which saw more than 25,000 people infected in the first two months of the year.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, and vaccination is the only way to prevent it, the WHO said. Most cases are in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people.

It added that even though the region had its highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination in 2017 – at around 90 percent – some countries have had problems, including declining or stagnating immunization coverage in some cases, low coverage in some marginalized groups, and immunity gaps in older populations.

The WHO called on national health authorities across the region to focus efforts on ensuring all population groups have access to vaccines.

“The impact on public health will persist until the ongoing outbreaks are controlled,” it said, adding that health authorities should “identify who has been missed in the past and reach them with the vaccines they need.”

A report by the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF last month found that more than 20 million children a year missed out on measles vaccines across the world in the past eight years, laying the ground for dangerous outbreaks.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ukraine says it captured Russian military intelligence hit squad

Head of the Security Service of Ukraine Vasyl Hrytsak (SBU) speaks during a news conference, dedicated to the alleged detention of members of a sabotage-reconnaissance group, who according to SBU were sent by Russian intelligence agencies, in Kiev, Ukraine April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s security service SBU said on Wednesday it had captured a Russian military intelligence hit squad responsible for the attempted murder of a Ukrainian military spy in the run-up to a presidential election on Sunday.

The issue of how to deal with Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and backs pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, is prominent ahead of the vote, with incumbent Petro Poroshenko casting himself as the commander-in-chief Ukraine needs to defend the country.

Vasyl Hrytsak, the head of the SBU, the main intelligence agency, told a news conference in Kiev that seven members of the Russian group had been detained and charged and that an eighth person had been detained on Wednesday morning.

Two of the group’s members were Russian citizens, said Anatoly Matios, Ukraine’s military prosecutor, describing them as staff officers of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. The other six were Ukrainians.

There was no immediate reaction from Russia’s GRU.

The SBU has reported before that it captured groups belonging to Russian special agencies.

“Those detained were involved in the attempted murder of an employee of the Ukrainian defense ministry’s intelligence service…in Kiev in April,” said Matios, adding the group had planted a bomb beneath the man’s car which had gone off prematurely, badly injuring one of the accused.

The SBU released a video of the same incident which showed a man placing the bomb under a car before a big explosion. The video showed a man lying in a hospital bed with part of his right arm missing saying he was Russian and born in Moscow.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Russia moves to mask its soldiers’ digital trail

FILE PHOTO: A Russian Army member, dressed in a historical uniform, takes a selfie as he attends a rehearsal for a military parade to mark the anniversary of a historical parade in 1941, when Soviet soldiers marched towards the front lines at the Red Square in Moscow, Russia November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is moving to ban its soldiers from sharing information on the internet, a step that follows the use of social media posts by investigative journalists to shine a light on Moscow’s clandestine role in foreign conflicts.

Draft legislation proposes banning servicemen and reserve troops from posting anything online that would allow outsiders to glean their whereabouts or role in the military.

The bill, which was approved by lawmakers in its second of three readings in parliament on Tuesday, says the ban would cover photographs, video, geolocation data or other information.

It would also prohibit soldiers sharing information about other servicemen or the relatives of servicemen, while those who break the ban would be subject to disciplinary measures.

“Information shared by soldiers on the internet or mass media is used…in certain cases to form a biased assessment of Russia’s state policy,” the bill’s explanatory note said.

The move comes with online investigative journalism sites drawing on open source data to probe Russia’s alleged role in clandestine operations abroad.

Investigative site Bellingcat used social network posts extensively in reports concluding that Russian soldiers were involved in the downing of passenger flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

A Dutch criminal investigation concluded last year that the plane was shot down with a surface-to-air missile belonging to the 53rd brigade of the Russian army. Moscow denies involvement.

“Social networks were used in many other investigations about the war in Ukraine and the war in Syria, for instance when fellow servicemen or relatives spoke about deceased soldiers,” said Roman Dobrokhotov, chief editor of investigative site The Insider.

Reuters has used social network posts to identify Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine at a time when Moscow denied its soldiers were fighting there.

If passed, the legislation will formally institute defense ministry recommendations that pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia says were issued to soldiers in 2017.

The lower house still has to vote on the bill once more before it is sent to the upper house for a vote and is then signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

(Editing by Peter Graff)