Putin bristles as Russia dubbed "mafia state'

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin defended the honor of Russia after it was branded a "mafia state" in the WikiLeaks memos and he was accused of being aware of a plot to murder a dissident in London.

As the whistleblowing website's founder Julian Assange, wanted by Interpol over rape allegations in Sweden, remained out of sight, one of his close associates voiced fears that he could be assassinated.

The United States meanwhile named an anti-terrorism expert to lead a review of security in the wake of the leaks of some 250,000 US diplomatic cables which has embarrassed and angered Washington's friends and foes alike.

Some of the most eye-catching of the latest revelations centered on Russia with one memo quoting a Spanish prosecutor describing it as a virtual "mafia state" whose political parties operate "hand in hand" with organized crime.

Spanish prosecutor Jose Gonzalez told US officials that "he considers ... Russia to be a virtual "˜mafia state'" where "one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and organized crime groups," the memo said.

Gonzalez, who has been investigating Russian organized crime in Spain for a decade, also agreed with poisoned dissident Alexander Litvinenko's thesis that Russian intelligence and security services "owned organised crime."

The memo, sent in February of this year from the US embassy in Madrid, cited the senior prosecutor as claiming that "certain political parties in Russia operate "˜hand in hand' with organized crime".

In a separate leaked cable sent shortly after Litvinenko's death in London in 2006, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried questioned whether Putin knew beforehand of the plot to kill the dissident.

In a meeting with a senior French diplomatic adviser, Fried asked "whether rogue security elements could operate... without Putin's knowledge," given the leader's "attention to detail."

The cables have also quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying that "Russian democracy has disappeared" and describing President Dmitry Medvedev as "Robin" to Putin's "Batman."

But in an interview with CNN, Putin said Gates was "deeply misled" about Russian democracy and warned US officials not to "interfere" in Russia's internal politics.

Although relations between Moscow and Washington have thawed in recent months, Putin made clear his annoyance.

"Our country is led by the people of the Russian Federation through the legitimately elected government," he said. "The Russian people have unilaterally made their choice in the direction of democracy in the early "˜90s. And we will not be led astray."

The diplomatic damage of the leaks was also illustrated in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was livid at allegations mentioned in the cables that he kept secret Swiss bank accounts.

"I do not have one penny in Swiss banks," Erdogan said, urging Washington to "call to account" its diplomats for "slander derived from lies and inaccurate opinions."

As the new leaks piled on embarrassment for his administration, US President Barack Obama named Russell Travers, an anti-terrorism expert, to "lead a comprehensive effort to identify and develop the structural reforms needed in light of the WikiLeaks breach," the White House said.

The State Department has already temporarily suspended Pentagon access to some documents. WikiLeaks is believed to have obtained 250,000 cables from Bradley Manning, a disgruntled army intelligence officer.

WikiLeaks was thrown off its Web host Amazon, best known as a book retailer. After several hours of disruption, WikiLeaks was again accessible in the United States via a European server.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley described Assange as "an anarchist" amid mystery over the whereabouts of the shadowy Australian who is the subject of an international arrest warrant.

Assange's British-based lawyer Mark Stephens said the authorities knew his where he was.

"The police know how to get hold of him, as does the Swedish prosecutor. Yet no one seems concerned to tell us what is going on," he said.

And a WikiLeaks spokesman said Assange feared for his life.

"When you have people calling, for example, for his assassination, it is best to keep a low profile," Kristinn Hrafnsson said in London

Assange's mother also expressed fear for her son's safety, saying the forces he was challenging had become "too big".

"I'm concerned it's gotten too big and the forces that he's challenging are too big," Christine Assange told the Courier Mail, her local newspaper in Queensland.

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