Masked police storm TV station hostile to Putin

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The Independent Online

Armed police in ski masks and camouflage jackets yesterday broke into the headquarters of a major Russian media group that is often critical of the Kremlin, and searched for documents.

The raid on the Media-Most holding company, which controls NTV, the second most watched television station in the country, comes four days after Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as President of Russia.

"They rushed in all in masks and the staff were forced into the dining room," said Yevgeni Maslovski, an NTV manager. "I asked: 'May I leave ?' They said: 'No, but you have an alternative: Either you can wait for four hours in the dining room or stay in your office, lying on the floor with your hands cuffed'."

The raid appears to be the first assault on the media empire of the tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of Media-Most, which also owns Ekho-Moskvy radio, the daily newspaper Sevodnya and the weekly magazine Itogi.

All have run critical reportson the war in Chechnya, the elections and how Mr Putin came to power.

The paramilitary police wore badges saying they were tax police, but NTV staff said these appeared to have been glued on. "It is a flagrant instance of lawlessness," Igor Malashenko, the vice-chairman of Media-Most, said. He claimed the police were looking for notes on "investigations into corruption in the government and law enforcement agencies".

The attack could be a sign that Mr Putin is losing no time in opening an assault on all remaining centres of dissent in the country. If the decision was made at a lower level it indicates that the President is less in control of Russia's security agencies than he pretends.

Surprisingly, the search was carried out in broad daylight, as if those who ordered it wanted to attract publicity. The Kremlin has hitherto confined itself to putting financial pressure on Mr Gusinsky, whose companies are heavily in debt.

Mikhail Berger, the editor in chief of Sevodnya, said: "We've known about the danger for some time.

"We've published information about an FSB [Federal Security Service] official, Mr Zaotrovski, and his commercial activities. We learnt that he had a meeting of officials from the security ministries and demanded they carry out a search." The FSB denies it was directly involved.

Until the 1998 financial crash, Mr Gusinsky had been able to obtain soft loans from the Kremlin. Some see his criticism of the government as an attempt to blackmail his way back into the Kremlin's favour.