By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW (Reuters) - British rock star and founder of the band Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler, said on Thursday he had canceled two concerts in Russia due to what he called a crackdown on human rights groups.
Russian prosecutors and tax officials searched the offices of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Memorial, Russia's oldest rights group, and other such organizations last month in what Kremlin critics said were raids aimed at stifling criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
"Given the crackdown by Russian authorities on groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I have regretfully decided to cancel my upcoming concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in June," Knopfler wrote on his website www.markknopfler.com.
Putin has signed laws to tighten controls on non-governmental organizations since he returned to the presidency in March last year, requiring those with foreign funding to register as "foreign agents", a term which echoes Cold War era hostilities.
He dismissed accusations of political pressure on the rights groups by saying the checks were "routine".
Knopfler said he hoped the situation would improve.
"I have always loved playing in Russia and have great affection for the country and the people," he wrote. "I hope the current climate will change soon."
Knopfler, along with British actor Stephen Fry and U.S. pop singer Madonna, has criticized Russia after a Moscow court handed two-year sentences to three members of the band Pussy Riot for their protest performance in a Moscow cathedral.
The United States has said it is very concerned about the spot tax inspections and European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton last week described what she called "raids" as part of a trend she said was deeply troubling.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)