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French citizen arrested in Moscow on charges of collecting military data

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s top state criminal investigation agency on Thursday announced the arrest of a French citizen accused of collecting information on military issues, a move that comes as relations between Russia and France have grown increasingly tense over the fighting in Ukraine.

The arrest was announced just as France hosted world leaders on the 80th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday. Russia wasn’t invited.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said the suspect, whom it didn’t identify, is accused of failing to register with authorities as a foreign agent while collecting “information about military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation.” It added that the information could be used to the detriment of the country’s security.

Russia’s state news agency Tass identified the arrested French citizen as Laurent Vinatier, an employee of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), a Geneva-based nongovernment organization.

HD confirmed Vinatier’s detention in a statement released to The Associated Press.

“We are aware that Laurent Vinatier, an adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), has been detained in Russia,” it said. “We are working to get more details of the circumstances and to secure Laurent’s release.”

French President Emmanuel Macron told French television Thursday night that the French citizen was “in no way…working for France” and that he “works for a Swiss NGO founded by former UN chief Kofi Annan and which carries out diplomacy of working discussions.″

He is receiving consular protection, Macron said.

Vinatier’s LinkedIn page, which describes him as a “conversationalist,” says he has worked for the center for over a decade and indicates that he has had a focus mostly on former Soviet republics, Turkey and the Middle East over the years.

Russia’s Investigative Committee posted a video showing officers detaining the suspect at a cafe and driving him to the committee’s Moscow offices for interrogation. The charges carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.

The arrest comes during a strain in Russian-French ties that followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements about the possibility of deploying the country’s troops in Ukraine.

Moscow has warned that French soldiers would be legitimate targets for Russia if they are sent to Ukraine.

The charges against the French citizen are based on a recently approved law that requires anyone who collects information on military issues to register with authorities as a foreign agent.

Human rights activists have criticized the law and other newly endorsed legislation as part of a multi-pronged Kremlin crackdown on independent media and political activists intended to muzzle criticism of its actions in Ukraine.

Arrests on charges of spying and collecting sensitive data have become increasingly frequent in Russia since it sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Recent high-profile arrests include Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested on espionage charges in March 2023, and U.S.-Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who was taken into custody in October 2023 for failing to register as a “foreign agent.”

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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