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A pro-Kremlin channel has aired a sensationalist report based on bugged phone calls and eavesdropped hotel meetings, accusing Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny of taking money from abroad and having contacts with the CIA.
The report was broadcast by the NTV channel, owned by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, late Wednesday, one day after President Vladimir Putin had warned over a "fifth column" in Russia after its taking of Crimea.
The report, shown on the channel's "Emergency Incident" muck-raking documentary slot, accused Navalny of seeking money from European Parliament figures and meeting with the CIA.
In the first part, it showed closed-circuit TV pictures of Putin's most vocal critic arriving at a Moscow hotel last year to meet senior European parliament MP and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.
It claimed that the bugged conversation recorded in the hotel showed that Navalny was seeking financial backing from Verhofstadt.
"You are interested not just in the future of Russian politics... We need a kind of practical help in the investigation," a voice said to be that of Navalny tells the Belgian politician.
The television said a "concrete sum" was discussed but this was not mentioned in the recordings.
The second recording was a tapped phone call in which a voice said to be that of Navalny is heard discussing a "journey to the CIA" although the context is not immediately clear.
The television claimed that Navalny had been in touch with the CIA to make sure his name was not linked to money from foreign "sponsors".
The broadcast was a clear attempt at smearing Navalny who has for years irked the Kremlin with in-depth corruption investigations into alleged hidden assets of the elite close to Putin.
Navalny was last year handed a five-year suspended sentence in a timber embezzlement case and is also being investigated on new charges of stealing from French cosmetics company Yves Rocher and a Russian firm.
The protest leader was in February put under house arrest in the second case and is no longer able to use the Internet and talk to the press.
His Twitter feed, one of the most followed sources of information of opponents of Putin, is now run by his wife Yulia.
She said they would be responding to the allegations later in the day, dismissing it as a "funny story".
For the moment she asked followers to write to Russia's FSB security service to ask how the conversations had been obtained.