WASHINGTON - Twelve Russian intelligence officers were indicted by a US grand jury on Friday -- just three days before President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin -- for interfering in the November 2016 presidential election.
The charges were drawn up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 vote and whether any members of Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow.
The indictment accuses members of Russia's military intelligence agency known as the GRU of carrying out "large-scale cyber operations" to steal Democratic Party documents and emails.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who announced the indictment at a press conference in Washington, said "there's no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime."
Rosenstein said "the conspirators corresponded with several Americans during the course of the conspiracy through the internet."
However, "there's no allegation in this indictment that the Americans knew they were corresponding with Russian intelligence officers," he said.
Rosenstein also stressed that "there's no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result."
Rosenstein said he briefed Trump about the indictment before Friday's announcement and that the timing was determined by "the facts, the evidence, and the law."
The deputy attorney general's press conference came as Trump was meeting Queen Elizabeth II and just three days before his meeting with Putin in Helsinki.
- Calls to cancel Putin meeting -
Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, immediately called on Trump to cancel the Putin talks.
"These indictments are further proof of what everyone but the president seems to understand: President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win," Schumer said in a statement.
"President Trump should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won't interfere in future elections," he said.
Speaking earlier Friday, before the indictments were announced, Trump said he would ask Putin about the allegations of Russian election meddling.
"I will absolutely, firmly ask the question, and hopefully we'll have a good relationship with Russia," he told a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
But he simultaneously denounced the Mueller investigation as a "rigged witch hunt," and said he has been "tougher on Russia than anybody."
"We have been extremely tough on Russia," Trump said.
The US president recalled that 60 intelligence officers were expelled from the Russian embassy in Washington in response to a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.
Russia has denied any involvement in the attack and rejected accusations that it interfered in the US presidential election in a bid to bring about the defeat of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Rosenstein said 11 of the Russians indicted Friday were charged with "conspiring to hack into computers, steal documents, and release those documents with the intent to interfere in the election.
"One of those defendants and a 12th Russian are charged with conspiring to infiltrate computers of organizations involved in administering elections," he added.
"The defendants accessed email accounts of volunteers and employees of a US presidential campaign, including the campaign chairman starting in March of 2016," the deputy attorney general said.
"They also hacked into the computer networks of a congressional campaign committee and a national political committee."AFP