Washington (AFP) - US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump defended Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, saying it would be "despicable" if the leader actually did kill opposition journalists, as he has been accused of on US television.
But Trump asked his TV interviewer to first "prove" any such allegations.
Trump's statements come just days after a separate talkshow host asked how he felt about Putin, who "kills journalists and political opponents and invades countries."
Trump quickly responded: "I think our country does plenty of killing, also."
Grilled about the matter Sunday on ABC's "This Week" show, Trump defended Putin's record regarding Russian journalists who have died.
"I think it was despicable if that took place, but I haven't seen any evidence that he killed anybody in terms of reporters," Trump said.
"When you say a man has killed reporters I'd like you to prove it. I have never seen any information or any proof that he killed reporters," Trump told host George Stephanopoulos, who referenced suspicions that Putin was involved in the 2006 death of investigative Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
When asked to explain his statement that "our country does plenty of killing," Trump took a jab at the leading Democratic presidential hopeful.
"I think Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, made some horrible, horrible decisions, and thousands and thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people have been killed," Trump said.
Pressed for specifics, Trump added: "Take a look at what we're doing in the Middle East. We went into Iraq, we shouldn't have."
Trump's feelings about Putin came under the spotlight Thursday when the Russian president described the American billionaire as "a very outstanding man, unquestionably talented" at his annual press conference in Moscow.
The next morning Trump returned the praise on the same talk show in which he accused the United States of killings.
"I think that he's a strong leader, he's a powerful leader," Trump said of Putin.
"When people call you brilliant it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia," he added.