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Dutch minister to face parliament over false Putin claim

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The Dutch government lurched toward political crisis on Tuesday as parliament ordered Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra to face questions for lying about witnessing Vladimir Putin outline a strategy for a greater Russia.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has defended the minister despite having known since late January that Zijlstra had made up the story about Russia’s president, was summoned to attend the session with lawmakers, set to begin at 1600 GMT.

Zijlstra admitted on Monday that he lied in 2016 when he said he had attended a meeting a decade earlier at which Putin reportedly spoke of plans for regional expansion.

He said he did not in fact attend the meeting but had heard second hand about the president’s remarks – comments that led opposition parties to demand his resignation and that the Russian Embassy dismissed on Tuesday as “fake news”.

Zijlstra is due to travel to Moscow for a previously scheduled meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.

So far the governing parties, including the ruling Liberal VVD party, have stood by Zijlstra, but all parties have supported the call for him to appear in parliament, which has the power to dismiss him.

De Volkskrant reported on Tuesday that Zijlstra had misrepresented Putin’s comments, citing an email from former Shell chief executive Jeroen van der Veer, who was at the meeting and the daily newspaper said was the source of the claim.

The Russian Embassy said in a statement that Zijlstra’s allegations “do not hold up against any criticism and are only intended to spread false perceptions of Russia’s intentions.”

“Russia is being blamed for disseminating disinformation,” the embassy said in a statement. “Dutch officials are constantly making such unfounded statements. ..Isn’t this an example of fake news directed against our country?”

The dispute comes at bad time for the Dutch, who are preparing indictments against suspects in the downing in July 2014 of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 196 Dutch citizens on board.

Dutch authorities have said the passenger airline was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile, fired from territory held by pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine. Russia has denied this.

Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and John Stonestreet

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