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Putin's Spokesman Says 'Exemplary' CIA Tip-Off Helped Save Many Lives

Russian Federal Security Service officers detain a suspected Islamic extremist in St. Petersburg on December 15.
Russian Federal Security Service officers detain a suspected Islamic extremist in St. Petersburg on December 15.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman says that a tip-off from the CIA about an alleged terror plot in St. Petersburg "helped save many lives" and should serve as an "exemplary" model of productive U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Dmitry Peskov's remarks on December 18 came a day after the Kremlin said Putin phoned U.S. President Donald Trump to express gratitude for information he said enabled Russia to thwart attacks on a prominent cathedral and other locations in St. Petersburg, which is Russia's second-largest city and Putin's hometown.

Both Putin and Trump have called for closer coordination against Islamic militants and both have claimed that opponents of the U.S. president are hampering efforts to mend the strained relationship. Following the phone call, the Kremlin and the White House both held out the cooperation against a purported terrorist plot as an example that should be emulated.

"Certain contacts between the two countries' intelligence services take place sporadically, but in this case there was extremely effective information that helped save many lives," Peskov told reporters in a regular conference call. He called it an "exemplary illustration of cooperation in the fight against terrorism" and said that "these are the standards we should strive for."

Putin, whose country has been hit by numerous militant attacks over his 18 years in power as president or prime minister, has in the past repeatedly accused the United States of doing too little to cooperate with Russia against Islamic extremists. In some cases, he has claimed that the United States has backed such militants in an effort to weaken Russia, an allegation that Washington has strongly rejected.

The December 17 phone call, which the White House said was initiated by Putin, was the second between the two leaders in a four-day span and came two days after Russian authorities said they had detained seven suspected Islamic extremists accused of planning bombings in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the information from the CIA helped track down and "detain terrorists" and that Putin "assured" Trump that Russian security services would relay to their U.S. counterparts any information about terrorist threats to the United States and its citizens.

The Kremlin added that Putin had asked Trump to pass along his thanks to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, which the White House said the U.S. president had done.

"No Russian lives were lost and the terrorist attackers were caught and are now incarcerated," the White House said in a statement. "President Trump appreciated the call and told President Putin that he and the entire United States intelligence community were pleased to have helped save so many lives."

Trump has repeatedly said he wants to improve relations with Moscow and that counterterrorism efforts in Syria and elsewhere could serve as a cornerstone of better ties.

But relations between Moscow and Washington continue to be mired in tension over Russian interference in Ukraine, mutual accusations of violating arms-control agreements, and what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a Russian campaign to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Multiple U.S. investigations are under way into the alleged election meddling and whether associates of Trump colluded with Moscow.

Putin denies that Russia interfered, and Trump says there was no collusion. Putin's phone call to Trump came three days after Putin, at his annual press conference, claimed that the allegations of Russian interference and possible collusion were "invented" by Trump's opponents in order to undermine his legitimacy.

The White House readout said that Trump stressed to Putin in the call "the importance of intelligence cooperation to defeat terrorists wherever they may be."

"Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together," the White House said.

At his press conference on December 14, Putin offered a positive assessment of Trump's presidency, citing rising stock prices, and said that he hopes U.S-Russia ties will recover. In a telephone call later the same day, Trump thanked Putin for "acknowledging America's strong economic performance," the White House said.

On December 17, before the Kremlin statement about the Trump-Putin phone call, the U.S. ambassador to Russia tweeted that "further improvements in the U.S.-Russia relationship" can be expected.

"The American people expect it and demand it, and the Russian people expect it and demand it as well," Ambassador Jon Huntsman added in the tweet posted by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The detentions of the seven suspects in the alleged planned bombings in St. Petersburg were announced by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) on December 15.

The agency said they are suspected members of the extremist group Islamic State and that they were being directed from abroad via the messaging app Telegram. It said a raid on an apartment in St. Petersburg had uncovered a cache of weapons, explosives, and extremist materials.

The FSB released footage that has been aired on Russian television in which one of the suspects, identified in Russian media as Yevgeny Yefimov, says he was tasked with preparing homemade explosives packed with shrapnel.

A St. Petersburg court on December 17 ordered three of the suspects to remain in custody until January 14, Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. Two of the men are from Russia's southern North Caucasus region, while the third is from the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan in Central Asia.

The press service for St. Petersburg's court system said the three men deny the allegations and claim that "weapons were planted on them."

Yefimov and a fifth suspect -- Anton Kobyets -- were previously ordered to remain in custody by a St. Petersburg court.

The status of the other two suspects cited in the FSB statement was not immediately clear.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, TASS, RIA Novosti, and Interfax
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