Fake press release gets Putin ally 'fired'

Russian security services sought Thursday to unravel a mystery after a fraudster managed to fool the country's news agencies into believing one of President Vladimir Putin's closest allies had been "fired" from his post.

The purported dismissal of Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russian Railways (RZD) was flashed by Russia's three main wires on Wednesday after they had received an emailed statement looking very much like an official government press release.

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

The incident -- believed to be the first of its kind in Russia -- looked even worse when Yakunin's deputy Alexander Misharin told a regional news agency that he was delighted with his promotion.

"Yes, you can congratulate me," Misharin told the UralPolit.ru website when asked about his "promotion."

But Forbes magazine wrote that Misharin was so shocked to hear news of his long-time boss's dismissal that he was "ready to jump out the window" of the train he was travelling at the time the news broke.

"When people were calling me, I told them thank you, I have no comment," Misharin said defensively on Thursday.

Yakunin himself told reporters that by coincidence he was dining with Putin and other top executives in Saint Petersburg at the very moment the false report was making the rounds in Moscow.

"It did not ruin my appetite. We were sitting and eating grouse," he deadpanned in televised remarks.

Yakunin told Forbes that Putin immediately told his old-time colleague not to be concerned. "Look at what happiness befell you," Yakunin quoted Putin as telling him with irony.

Yakunin -- once mentioned as a possible presidential successor to Putin after the Russian leader finished his first two terms in 2008 -- made no secret of his anger and also that he was "going to find out" who was behind the release.

"I just took a huge dose of anger pills," he told the Prime news agency.

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

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

Timakova noted that the fake press release contained "grammatical mistakes" and appeared to fault the news agencies 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 -- a region that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev himself was visiting on Wednesday.

The idea that Yakunin could be dismissed from a post he has held since 2005 jives well with the theory -- common in Russia -- that there is an intense rivalry between officials loyal to Putin and those close to Medvedev.

The prime minister's dismissal of one of Putin's closest colleagues would show political strength that few analysts believed Medvedev had.

The 64-year-old Yakunin not only enjoys a friendship with Putin but is seen as instrumental in building up the railway system ahead of the 2018 football World Cup that Russia gets to host for the first time.

The company also controls around $100 billion in assets and is one of Russia's largest employers.

Russian newspapers for their part 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."