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Putin lashes US on Fifa probe as Russia denies wrongdoing

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the US of using a corruption probe to try to block the re-election of Fifa chief Joseph "Sepp" Blatter for resisting attempts to remove Russia's right to host the 2018 World Cup.

[MOSCOW] Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the US of using a corruption probe to try to block the re-election of Fifa chief Joseph "Sepp" Blatter for resisting attempts to remove Russia's right to host the 2018 World Cup.

Mr Blatter has "every chance" to gain a fifth term as president of soccer's ruling body on Friday and "we know the pressure that was put on him to prevent the 2018 World Cup taking place in Russia," Mr Putin told reporters on Thursday in televised comments.

"I have no doubts at all that this is a clear attempt to prevent Blatter's re-election as president of Fifa, which is a flagrant violation of the working principles of international organizations," Mr Putin said.

The US inquiry into alleged corruption at Fifa is "yet another clear attempt to extend its jurisdiction into other countries" Mr Putin said. He compared it to the US pursuit of whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.

Swiss prosecutors said on Wednesday that they had uncovered "irregularities" in the selection of Russia and Qatar as host countries of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments as the US indicted top Fifa officials over an alleged 24-year scheme involving US$150 million in bribes from sports marketing executives, the biggest corruption scandal to hit the governing body of the world's most popular sport.

"Unfortunately, our American partners are using such methods to reach their own selfish goals and are doing it illegally, persecuting people," Mr Putin said. If any wrongdoing occurred, "it didn't happen on US territory and the US has nothing to do with it," he said.

Swiss authorities said they'll be questioning 10 people who voted on the award of the World Cup to Russia and Qatar as part of their investigations into allegations of "criminal mismanagement and of money-laundering." Russia has "many questions" about the investigation, which is "another case of the extraterritorial application of US laws," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a website statement late Wednesday. "We hope that this will by no means be used to cast a shadow on the international soccer organization in general and the decisions it is taking," he said.

Russia's World Cup Organizing Committee said that its bid campaign was made "in full compliance with Fifa rules" and that its representatives "acted ethically and in a spirit of fair play throughout," according to an e-mailed statement.

There are "no such accusations" from Swiss prosecutors against Russia over alleged bribery in the award of the 2018 tournament, Sports Minister Vitaliy Mutko said in a phone interview from Zurich. The "contract is signed" and Russia is "continuing preparations" to host the tournament, he said.

Russia is spending 665 billion rubles (S$17.5 billion) on preparations to stage the World Cup for the first time and Putin has staked his prestige on hosting major sports tournaments. Last year Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"At its root this has nothing to do with Russia," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-linked political analyst. "This is about Washington taking control of Fifa."

The US, which is locked in a dispute with Putin over the conflict in Ukraine, will use the scandal to step up pressure for Russia to be stripped of the right to host the tournament, Mr Markov said. "The political benefits can be huge," he said.

"In Russia any such scandal is seen as a part of campaign to discredit Russia and they will see it not as fight against corruption but as a fight against Russia," said Alexander Baunov, senior associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The US and Swiss investigations promise to upend an organisation that has endured a series of scandals during Blatter's tenure, which began in 1998. Fifa said Wednesday that the presidential election, as well as the World Cup tournaments in Russia and Qatar, would take place as planned.

Two US senators, Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican John McCain, on Tuesday urged Fifa not to re-elect Blatter for his fifth term as president in light of his "continued support" for Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup.

In a letter to the Fifa Congress, the senators said the economic benefits from hosting the tournament would contravene the sanctions imposed on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine. The body should elect a president who'll "work to deny the Putin regime the privilege" of staging the World Cup, it said.

The US and Europe are locked in their worst confrontation with Russia since the Cold War over the Russian annexation of Crimea and the more than yearlong conflict in eastern Ukraine, in which Putin is accused of supporting pro-Russian separatists. The Kremlin denies US and European Union accusations that Russia has sent troops and weapons to support the rebels.