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MOSCOW (Reuters) - In a sign Vladimir Putin's allies may be getting serious about tackling the biggest protests of his 12-year rule, a loyal media outlet has published telephone calls of an opposition leader laced with profanities denigrating colleagues and followers.
True to Russia's history of KGB-style stings, the recordings appear aimed at sowing discord within the fragmented opposition movement which this month united behind mass protests against Putin following a disputed parliamentary election.
The www.lifenews.ru Internet site, which local media says is partly owned by Putin ally Yuri Kovalchuk, published 36 recordings of conversations between opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and other members of the protest movement.
"She is a fucker but what the hell can I do about it? She doesn't fucking listen," one recording purports to show Nemtsov saying of Yevgeniya Chirikova, a 35-year-old opposition campaigner who also took part in the mass protests.
"You are a fucking great Russian writer for fuck's sake. Can you call that Chirikova and tell that bitch that you are insulting Nemtsov by accusing him of working for money. That bloody beast," Nemtsov said.
In other comments, Nemtsov derided supporters he was trying to muster for a rally as "office plankton" who had never seen a riot policeman in their lives.
Nemtsov, a former cabinet minister who was once tipped as possible Kremlin leader during the rule of Boris Yeltsin, said the recordings had been heavily edited and partly falsified in an attempt by Putin's supporters to splinter the opposition.
"Parts of the recordings are genuine, part are heavily edited and parts are simply fake and falsified," Nemtsov told Reuters by telephone.
Nemtsov said the publication was an attempt by Putin and Kremlin acting chief of staff Vladislav Surkov to undermine a day of mass protests planned across Russia on December 24.
"The aim of Putin and Surkov is to prevent a mass meeting on the 24th and to split the opposition," Nemtsov said. "They will not succeed: it will have the opposite effect and more people will come out."
Surkov's office did not return a call for comment.
A spokesman for Kovalchuk's Bank Rossiya refused to say if there were any links between Kovalchuk and Lifenews, requesting written questions. Lifenews said it did not know of any links with Kovalchuk, who Forbes says has a net worth of $1.5 billion.
Nemtsov said he had offered his apologies to Chirikova for his comments but that the publication had contravened his rights as a Russian citizen and his lawyers were working on getting a criminal case opened.
In Russia, only state security services or their commercial cousins have the resources to carry out such extensive "phone hacking" so the recordings may also indicate the enduring influence of the secret police in Russian politics.
Russia's secret police have long meddled in Moscow politics, even coining the Russian word "kompromat" - or compromising material - to describe potentially damaging information used for blackmail.
While Putin was head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1999, the security services were suspected of having a hand in the airing of a video purporting to show Russia's top prosecutor cavorting in bed with two women.
"We were taught at school that it is disgusting to listen to other's telephone conversations," Chirikova told Reuters.
"I see this as a setup by the FSB and the party of swindlers and thieves who are using our taxes to do everything possible to thrust themselves into the private life of an individual."
Lifenews, which has delivered scoops such as the January 24 suicide bombing at Russia's biggest airport by building close contacts with the law enforcement agencies, did not say where it had got the recordings.
Ashot Gabrelyanov, the 22-year-old chief executive of News Media which owns Lifenews, refused to say if he had got the recordings from the security services.
"You as a reporter yourself know I cannot disclose my sources," he said by telephone.
"The cynicism of the opposition leaders is 10 on the Richter scale," Gabrelyanov said on his twitter account. "Dudes, in five years in show business I have never heard such an outrage."
Additional reporting by Catherine Koppel and Kiryl Sukhotski; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge