Fake press statement gets Putin ally 'fired' from post

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia was embroiled in political mystery Thursday after it emerged that an unidentified hacker had managed to fool the country's main news agencies into believing that one of President Vladimir Putin's closest allies had been "fired" from his post.

News of Russian Railways chief's Vladimir Yakunin was flashed by the three main news agencies Wednesday evening after they had received an emailed statement looking very much like an official government press release.

The only problem was that neither the government nor the Kremlin had heard a thing about it and the statement was a fake.

The incident began to look even worse when Mr Yakunin's deputy Alexander Misharin told a regional news agency that he was delighted to get a promotion to Russian Railways' top post.

"Yes, you can congratulate me," Mr Misharin told the UralPolit.ru website when asked about his "promotion." Officials were red in the face from both embarrassment and anger.

A seething Mr Yakunin - once mentioned as a possible presidential successor to Mr Putin after the Russian leader finished his first two terms in 2008 - told the Prime news agency that he was "going to find out" who was behind the release.

"I just took a huge dose of anger pills," Mr Yakunin said.

He later told Interfax: "Nothing in the world happens just like that. This means that someone needed this."

Russian government spokesman Natalia Timakova told Interfax that the government intended to get the Federal Security Service (ex-KGB) involved in hunting down the guilty party.

Ms Timakova noted that the fake press release contained "grammatical mistakes" and appeared to fault the news agencies - madly competing against each other to be the first to report the news - for falling for the hoax.

News reports said that the IP address of the email belongs to a company registered in the Siberian region of Irkutsk.

Russian newspapers meanwhile had a field day with the news on Thursday.

"Vladimir Yakunin was fired from the wrong IP-address," the Kommersant newspaper remarked in a front-page headline.

"The head of Russian Railways was believed to have been fired for 30 minutes."

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