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Putin opponent Navalny posts photo from hospital, plans to return to Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny shared a photograph from a Berlin hospital on Tuesday, sitting up in bed and surrounded by his family, and said he could now breathe independently after being poisoned in Siberia last month.

The photo - the strongest evidence yet of Navalny’s advancing recovery after emerging from a coma last week - was swiftly followed by confirmation from his press spokeswoman that he planned to return to Russia.

“Hi, this is Navalny. I miss you all,” he wrote in the caption to his Instagram followers. “I can still hardly do anything, but yesterday I could breathe all day on my own. Actually on my own.”

The leading opponent of President Vladimir Putin, fell violently sick while campaigning on Aug. 20 and was airlifted to Berlin. Germany says laboratory tests in three countries have determined he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, and Western governments have demanded an explanation from Russia.

Moscow has called the accusations groundless. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated on Tuesday that Moscow was open to clearing up what happened to Navalny, but needed access to information on his case from Berlin.

He said Moscow did not understand why, if French and Swedish laboratories had been able to test his medical samples, Russia was not being given the same access.

The case has further strained relations between Russia and the West, already at a post-Cold War low since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the attempted poisoning of a former Russian double agent with the same Novichok nerve agent in England in 2018.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced calls to punish Russia by suspending work on Nord Stream 2, a nearly completed pipeline bringing gas from Russia to Germany.

‘NO OTHER OPTIONS’

The photograph showed Navalny looking towards the camera, with his wife Yulia supporting him with her arms and their two children looking on.

The New York Times on Tuesday quoted a German security official as saying Navalny had spoken to a German prosecutor about the incident and said he planned to return to Russia as soon as he recovered.

Confirming the report, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh wrote on Twitter: “No other options were ever considered.”

Asked for comment, Peskov said: “Any citizen of the Russian Federation is free to leave Russia and return to Russia. If a citizen of the Russian Federation recovers his health, then of course everyone will be happy about that.”

The Kremlin has for years regarded Navalny with contempt. In a rare departure from his normal practice of referring to “the Berlin patient”, Peskov spoke the opposition leader’s name on Tuesday.

Navalny, 44, has not been allowed to form a political party but has riled Putin for the past decade with detailed campaigns exposing official corruption, bypassing the state-controlled media by using Instagram and YouTube.

In his social media post, he even attempted a flash of humour, saying that breathing naturally was “an amazing process, underestimated by many. I’d recommend it.”

Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov, Anton Zverev and Katya Golubkova, writing by Mark Trevelyan, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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