Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the U.S. Special Forces of being involved in the killing of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“Who did this?” Putin said in his annual televised phone-in with Russians. “Drones, including American ones. They attacked his column. Then − through the Special Forces, who should not have been there − they brought in the so-called opposition and fighters, and killed him without court or investigation.”
The Pentagon immediately dismissed the charge as “ludicrous.”
Russia had initially allowed NATO’s air campaign in Libya to go ahead by abstaining in a U.N. Security Council vote. But it then vehemently criticized the campaign which Putin at one stage compared to a “crusade.”
His comments mark the first time that Russia has implicated the U.S. administration in Qaddafi’s death.
Putin also lashed out at U.S. Senator John McCain, a former presidential candidate and frequent Putin critic who warned in a message on Twitter this month that an “Arab Spring” may soon be coming to Russia.
“I know Mr McCain,” said Putin, adding that he would prefer not to refer to him as a “friend.”
“This was not addressed in my direction. This was said about Russia. Some people want to move Russia aside somewhere in a corner, so it does not intervene − so that it does not intervene in the ruling of the world,” said Putin.
“They still fear our nuclear capabilities,” he said in reference to the West.
“That is why we are such an irritant. We have our own opinion and are conducting our own independent foreign policy ... And it clearly bothers someone.”
Putin ‘pleased’ by protests
Putin sought a positive spin on last weekend’s protest against vote fraud, that drew tens of thousands in the greatest challenge to his dozen years in power, saying he was glad to see a rise in public activity as a result of his rule.
“I saw on television mostly young, active people clearly expressing their positions. I am pleased to see this,” he said in his first reaction to the demonstrations.
“And if this is the result of the Putin regime, than this is good. I see nothing extraordinary about it.”
He said the results of Russia’s parliamentary election reflected the people’s will, and that the opposition had alleged vote fraud purely to strengthen its position.
“The results of this election undoubtedly reflect the real balance of power in the country,” he said, speaking in a national call-in TV show. “It’s very good that United Russia has preserved its leading position.”
He added that a drop in support for his party was a natural result of the global financial crisis of 2008 that has taken its toll on the country.
United Russia lost about 20 percent of its seats in the election and no longer has the two-thirds majority that allowed it to change constitution at will in the previous parliament. It barely retained a majority in the State Duma, and opposition parties and some vote monitors said that even that result was inflated by ballot-stuffing and other violations.
Putin brushed off the vote fraud claims as part of the opposition’s struggle for power, and said that any complaints should go to the courts. He alleged that some of the protest leaders have been acting at Western behest to weaken Russia.
“The opposition goal’s is to fight for power, and it's looking for every chance to advance,” he said, insisting that the vote results genuinely reflected the people’s will.
The unprecedented wave of protest against his 12-year rule poses a significant challenge to Putin less than three months before presidential elections in which he seeks to return to the Kremlin.
He sought to counter public discontent with the alleged fraud on Thursday by proposing to place web cameras at each of Russia’s more than 90,000 polling stations by the March 4 presidential vote.
“Let them be there next to every ballot box to avoid any falsifications,” he said.