Thu, Jul 19, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UK braces for Moscow's reaction

STANDOFF The EU reacted coolly on Tuesday as the UK tried to rally support in its row with Russia over extraditing a suspect in the death of Alexander Litvinenko

AGENCIES , LONDON

Britain braced yesterday for Russia's response to its expulsion of four diplomats in a row over the murder of former agent Alexander Litvinenko, as Moscow said it would "not take long" to reply.

The standoff also took on a potentially new dimension as it emerged that exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky temporarily fled Britain recently after police warned of a plot to kill him in London.

The diplomatic row spilled into mainland Europe on Tuesday as Britain looked for solidarity from its EU partners and Russia warned them not to get involved.

Britain failed to win the immediate, concerted response it was seeking. The UK Foreign Office had wanted a quick statement from the Portuguese, who hold the EU presidency, that would express a united European position denouncing Moscow for its lack of cooperation over the Litvinenko murder inquiry. But by late on Tuesday Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates had been unable to find a consensus among his fellow leaders.

The French offered particularly vocal support, but German foreign ministry officials reportedly believed Britain had overreacted by expelling four diplomats.

Other European leaders were waiting for the Russian response before committing themselves.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was due to meet his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, yesterday to press Britain's case, and has already secured strong French support in the effort to secure Lugovoi's extradition.

Britain announced on Monday that it is expelling four diplomats from Russia's embassy in London to protest Moscow's refusal to extradite Lugovoi.

Russian Ambassador to Britain Yuri Fedotov gave little hint about the retaliatory steps envisaged by Moscow except to say they would be "adequate."

London insists Russia could not justify retaliating for the expulsions over its refusal to hand over Lugovoi.

Russia says its Constitution prevents it from extraditing its own citizens to face trial in another country, while Britain says this is possible under an international accord signed by Russia.

Russian members of parliament quoted by news agencies expressed bewilderment at London's announcement and many lent their support to a strong response from the Russian government.

But Leonid Slutsky of the pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic party said Russia should hold back.

"If Russia responds, it will be seen as the latest tiff with Europe, and Russia is unlikely to find allies in Europe," he said.

The Kremlin was also unhappy about Britain's refusal to extradite Berezovksy, the billionaire oligarch who has apparently called for the violent overthrow of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and leading Chechen exile Akhmed Zakayev.

The Sun newspaper reported yesterday in London that a Russian hitman planned to execute Berezovsky at the Hilton Hotel in London, but was foiled.

A spokeswoman for Berezovsky he had been informed three weeks ago by Scotland Yard of a plot to kill him.

Berezovsky, a one-time Kremlin insider, fell out with Putin and was granted political asylum in Britain, where he has become a vocal critic of the Kremlin. His visibility has increased substantially since Litvinenko's murder.

Fedotov told BBC radio that Berezovsky's claim was "quite strange information, and I have nothing that could confirm it."

The envoy also accused Berezovsky of being linked "to many criminal international schemes of money laundering, corruption and organized crime."

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