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FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko addresses the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

(reuters_tickers)

By Andrius Sytas and Alessandra Prentice

VILNIUS/KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied on Friday interfering with the work of law enforcement bodies investigating corruption and he urged such agencies to refrain from playing politics.

Ukrainian authorities this week have faced accusations of deliberately sabotaging anti-corruption reforms, which are a key condition for international support for the country as it grapples with a Russian-backed separatist insurgency.

Perceived backsliding by Kiev on its reform commitments, including delays in establishing an independent court to handle corruption cases, has held up billions of dollars in loans under Ukraine's $17.5 billion (£13 billion) IMF programme.

"Over the last 2.5 years of activity of the anti-corruption institutions, everybody, including the heads of these institutions, has said there has not been a single instance of interference by the president in their work," Poroshenko said.

"We consider it unacceptable when the leaders of any law enforcement bodies, including anti-corruption, begin to play in the political field," he told a news conference during a visit to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

"They must be independent, protected from political influence."

Action by Ukraine's parliament and prosecutors against existing anti-corruption bodies such as the NABU investigative bureau provoked a wave of criticism this week from reformers and Kiev's foreign backers including the IMF.

Poroshenko's faction is the largest in parliament and the president also nominates the general prosecutor.

IMF APPEAL

"Corrupt Empire Strikes Back" read the headline of the English language newspaper Kyiv Post on Friday.

The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, said she had urged Poroshenko during a telephone conversation late on Thursday to speed up the fight against corruption.

Lagarde said she and Poroshenko had discussed the need to safeguard the independence of NABU and similar institutions and that they agreed on the urgency of establishing an anti-corruption court.

On Friday Poroshenko said he would soon introduce a draft law to set up such a court, taking into account recommendations by the Venice Commission, a leading European rights watchdog.

"The effectiveness of the work of anti-corruption bodies should not be in the number of press conferences (they give), but in the number of corrupt officials who are put behind bars," he added.

Poroshenko was asked about the current furore surrounding former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili after Ukrainian law enforcement officials twice failed to detain him this week on charges of aiding a criminal organisation.

"The situation with Saakashvili is not worthy of international attention, because there are specific crimes that were committed and we must ensure transparency of the investigation and absolute openness," Poroshenko said.

"If he flees from the investigation, this undermines his credibility," he added.

Saakashvili became a regional governor in Ukraine in 2015 at Poroshenko's invitation but they later fell out, with the former Georgian leader accusing the president of corruption. Saakashvili denies the charges against him.

(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Gareth Jones)

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Reuters