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Britain Seeks Lugovoi's Extradition

British prosecutors said Tuesday that they would charge former security officer Andrei Lugovoi in the radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and began proceedings to request his extradition.

The Prosecutor General's Office said it would not extradite Lugovoi to London, and Lugovoi called the accusations politically motivated.

Tuesday's developments threaten to worsen Russian-British relations, already strained over Britain's refusal to extradite businessman Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev to face charges at home and a British spy scandal in Moscow last year. Frayed ties are believed to be behind a Kremlin boycott of the Russian Economic Forum in London last month.

British prosecutors said Tuesday that Lugovoi poisoned Litvinenko, also a former Federal Security Service officer, by contaminating his tea with polonium-210 during a meeting in a London hotel on Nov. 1.

"I have today concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Mr. Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning," Ken McDonald, Britain's director of public prosecutions, said in televised remarks.

McDonald said Russia should give up Lugovoi "so he may be brought swiftly before a London court to be prosecuted for this extraordinarily grave crime."

If Lugovoi were brought on trial and convicted, he would face life in prison.

The Prosecutor General's Office said Tuesday that Russian law prohibited citizens from being extradited to another country. Marina Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, said Lugovoi could only be tried at home and suggested that Britain turn over its evidence.

The Foreign Ministry confirmed that Moscow would not hand over Lugovoi, but reiterated its "readiness to cooperate with British authorities in the objective and impartial clarification of all the circumstances," it said in a statement.

But there was every indication that Britain would not give up easily, and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett summoned Russian Ambassador Yury Fedotov to discuss the case. "This was a serious crime. We are seeking and expect full cooperation from the Russian authorities in bringing the perpetrator to face British justice," Beckett said in a statement.

Litvinenko's widow, Marina, met with the ambassador separately. "It was not an easy meeting for him because I asked him his opinion about the extradition of Mr. Lugovoi from Russia," she told British television. "He did not answer me, because it's not his decision."

A spokesman for outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the case was particularly serious "because of the risks to public health" caused by the poison, The Associated Press reported.

Litvinenko died Nov. 23 -- three weeks after being poisoned. As his condition worsened, his hair fell out and he grew gaunt. Doctors described death by polonium poisoning as extremely painful.

Theories continue to swirl as to the motives behind the murder. In a deathbed statement, Litvinenko, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, accused the president of ordering his murder. The Kremlin has dismissed the allegation.

Russian prosecutors have opened an investigation of their own into Litvinenko's death, and in the course of their work have interviewed Berezovsky, who has received asylum in Britain but is wanted by Moscow on charges of fraud and fomenting a violent revolution.

Berezovsky said Tuesday that the decision to charge Lugovoi should be interpreted as a direct accusation that the Kremlin was behind the murder. "There is no other way this can be interpreted," Berezovsky said.

Berezovsky said he believed Lugovoi's life was in danger. "He will be the next victim because he knows too much," he said.

Tuesday's announcement appears to end a six-month investigation by London Metropolitan Police that brought its detectives to Moscow to interview Lugovoi and his associates, Dmitry Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko, who were also at the hotel the day Litvinenko was poisoned.

Sokolenko refused to comment when reached by telephone Tuesday, and Kovtun could not be reached.

Calls to Lugovoi's cell phone went unanswered Tuesday. But he told Itar-Tass: "I did not kill Litvinenko. I had nothing to do with his death and can prove with facts my distrust of the so-called evidence collected by Britain's justice system."

Jane Holman, a spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service, said it could be several days before Lugovoi is formally charged.

In an e-mailed statement, British prosecutors pointed to commitments Russia had made on extraditions via a European convention.

As for the extradition process, the Crown Prosecution Service has handed all the relevant paperwork to the Central Authorities Judicial Cooperation Unit -- a Home Office department, said Darren Horsman, another service spokesman.

The Home Office will write to Russian prosecutors with a formal request to extradite Lugovoi "in the near future," Horsman said, adding that he was unable to elaborate.

And for now, it appears that Russian prosecutors have made little headway in their investigation. One of their spokespeople refused to discuss it.

(The Moscow Times 23.v.07)

 
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