Reuters International

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to delegates of the Russian Engineering Union congress in Moscow, Russia, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Maximov/Pool

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By Maria Tsvetkova and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The editor-in-chief of Russia's RBC media group, whose outlets published disclosures about the commercial interests of people close to President Vladimir Putin, is to leave her job to start a sabbatical four months earlier than planned.

A source close to the media group said the departure of the editor-in-chief, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, may have been brought forward under pressure from Kremlin officials who were displeased with the publications about Putin's inner circle.

A Kremlin spokesman denied the media group or its owners were being subjected to pressure.

Law enforcement officials last week searched the offices of Mikhail Prokhorov, the tycoon who controls RBC. People close to the media group said the raid was linked, at least in part, to official anger at their reporting.

The RBC newspaper, part of the media group, had in the past few months reported on the business interests of Putin's son-in-law, and wrote in detail about people in Putin's circle who were named in the leaked "Panama Papers" as having offshore firms.

The Kremlin denied last week there was any political motive behind the searches. Officials said they were related to an investigation into a bank that one of Prokhorov's firms had bailed out.

In a statement, RBC holding said Osetinskaya, was taking a sabbatical to study at Stanford University in the United States during the 2016-2017 academic year. The statement said that she would start her sabbatical after the May Day holidays, which in Russia end on May 10.

However, in a post on her Facebook page dated from the start of this month, Osetinskaya had said she would start her sabbatical in September.

There was no immediate explanation from the company or from Osetinskaya for the discrepancy over the dates. Osetinskaya, when contacted by Reuters, declined to comment. A representative of Onexim, Prokhorov's holding company, also declined to comment.

Osetinskaya's plans "may have been changed under pressure from the Kremlin," said the source close to RBC holding, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Over the course of several days before the searches at Prokhorov's (businesses), there were several conversations with officials from the presidential administration, during which they held up the front page of the newspaper with the article about the Panama offshore firms, accompanied by the photograph of Putin," the source said.

The source said that another, earlier article in RBC newspaper, about the business interests of Kirill Shamalov, Putin's son-in-law, prompted "phone calls to top management from Kremlin officials."

Asked by Reuters about Osetinskaya's departure, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "I'm unaware that she is going anywhere... I have a working meeting with Osetinskaya tomorrow. That's to say she continues in her job. We meet from time to time. But no one is applying any pressure whatsoever."

(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs, Andrey Kuzmin, Darya Korsunskaya, Dmitry Zhdannikov and Anastasia Lyrchikova; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Richard Balmforth)

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