Fri, Jul 20, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Russia expels four British diplomats in extradition row

AFP , MOSCOW AND LONDON

Russia yesterday announced the expulsion of four British diplomats, a visa ban on British officials and the suspension of counter-terrorism cooperation amid a mounting diplomatic row.

"The British ambassador has been officially notified that four British embassy employees have been declared persona non grata," foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in Moscow.

In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband denounced the tit-for-tat expulsions as "completely unjustified."

He voiced regret that Moscow appeared to be making no moves towards extraditing the chief suspect in the murder of a Russian agent-turned dissident in London last November.

"Our ambassador was called to a meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry this afternoon at 12:30 UK time," Miliband said in a brief statement. "He was informed of a series of measures that the Russian government propose to take. We are now studying those measures very carefully to ensure that we understand the detail."

"We obviously believe that the decision to expel four embassy staff is completely unjustified and will be doing everything to ensure that they and their families are properly looked after," he said.

"We are, however, much heartened that over the last 36 hours across the international community, European countries, the EU as a whole and the United States should have put out such positive statements about the need to defend the integrity of the British judicial system," Miliband said.

The row erupted after Russia last week refused to extradite the man identified by British police as the suspect in the London murder last year of former Russian agent and fierce Kremlin critic, Alexander Litvinenko.

Britain on Monday demanded the expulsion of four Russian diplomats and announced unspecified visa restrictions on Russian government officials, citing Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB agent.

In response to British restrictions, "Russian officials will not request British visas, and visa applications by British government officials will not be considered," Kamynin said.

"Unfortunately the measures announced by the authorities in London make impossible future cooperation between Russia and Britain in the struggle against terrorism," he said as he called for "common sense" to prevail.

The US and EU have thrown their weight behind London in the crisis, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying yesterday that Moscow should extradite Lugovoi.

Bombers intercepted

Royal Air Force fighter jets were scrambled after two Russian bombers were intercepted off the coast of Norway, the UK defense ministry said on Wednesday, following reports they were heading for British airspace.

Two RAF Tornados from Britain's rapid reaction force took off from RAF base Leeming in northern England on Tuesday after two Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s intercepted two Tu95 "Bear" bombers, the ministry said.

A defense ministry spokesman said there was no connection between the incident and Britain's plans to deport four Russian diplomats.

Russia, which runs regular aircraft patrols from a base near Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, also strongly denied the reports.

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