Thu, Dec 07, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Moscow hinders Scotland Yard's murder inquiry

POISONED RELATIONS European countries are slamming Moscow for its lackluster cooperation in the investigation into the 'polonium-210' affair

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON AND MOSCOW

Intense diplomatic pressure was being brought to bear on the Kremlin on Monday in an attempt to ensure its full cooperation with the Scotland Yard investigation into the polonium-210 poisoning affair.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac demanded more support and transparency from Moscow, while Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema pressed for greater assistance during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Even as those face-to-face talks were taking place, however, a team of Scotland Yard detectives in Moscow were forced to watch as Russian officials seized control of a key part of their inquiry.

The officers were told that not only will Russian suspects never be extradited to the UK, but that witnesses will be questioned by Russian police, rather than by British officers.

In issuing his warning, Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika also appeared to preempt the Yard's attempts to investigate fully the source of the radioactive isotope which claimed the life of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, in London 13 days ago, by insisting that it could not have come from Russia.

"We are going to do the questioning; they [British officers] are not going to do it, we are, because the investigation is taking place on the territory of the Russian federation," Chaika said. "If they want to arrest them it would be impossible; they are citizens of Russia and the Russian constitution makes that impossible."

He said British police could be present during Russian police interviews and that suspects could face trial in Russia. He added, however, that Russian authorities had the right to deny permission for any interview to take place and that Scotland Yard could not enlarge on the number of interviews it had already requested, thought to number at least five.

Furthermore, he said, British police would not be questioning serving officers of the Russian security service, the FSB.

The Russian authorities' stance appeared to be sharply at odds with that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has said no political or diplomatic barrier would stand in the way of the British police inquiry and of British Home Secretary John Reid, who insisted yesterday that politics would not hinder the inquiry.

It is believed that the visiting team from the Yard's newly formed Counter-terrorism Command is likely to be less than surprised, however. Before they left for Moscow a senior Yard detective said: "We'll be welcomed with open arms, offered a nice meal and lots of vodka ... and come home with next to nothing."

In a further possible setback, a lawyer for a man regarded by the Yard as one of their best witnesses said he could not see them immediately because he was in hospital undergoing further tests for contamination with polonium-210.

Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard, has said he picked up traces of the poison during one of a number of meetings with Litvinenko in London during October and last month, but has firmly denied playing any part in the events surrounding his death.

Russian prosecutors say they would be prepared to question Lugovoy on Scotland Yard's behalf, but only if doctors gave permission.

While there was no reaction in Whitehall to the Russian authorities' stance, pressure has been mounting on the Kremlin elsewhere in Europe.

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