Russia blames Britain for tense ties

( AP ) - Russia's foreign minister charged Friday that Britain had been deliberately worsening relations between the two countries, prompting Moscow to shut the regional offices of a major British non-governmental organization.

The British Council, which acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy, was ordered this week to close its branches in the cities of Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg by Jan. 1.

Russia alleges that the British Council was a for-profit operation, and said its regional offices violated an international convention on consular affairs.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated those complaints Friday, but he indicated Russia had ordered the offices closed in response to diplomatic tensions stemming from the killing of dissident security agent Alexander Litvinenko. Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in July because of Russia's refusal to extradite the main suspect in the killing of Litvinenko, who died in London of poisoning by a radioactive isotope.

When it expelled the Russian diplomats, Britain also said it was restricting visas issued to Russian government officials and reviewing interaction on a range of issues. Russia responded in kind, expelling four diplomats, suspending issuance of visas for British officials and halting counterterrorism cooperation.

"This summer, the British side deliberately began worsening our relations by expelling our diplomats, by stopping contact with the Federal Security Service on anti-terror operations and by refusing to ease visa restrictions," Lavrov said.

"Such things are not tolerated in diplomacy, and as a countermeasure we ordered the suspension" of British Council operations in all cities except Moscow, he told reporters.

Russian complaints about the British Council were also seen by many here as reflecting Russian suspicion that Western NGOs aim to stir up discontent.

"It's obvious that Russian authorities want to close our offices down illegally," British Ambassador Anthony Brenton said later Friday on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, was given citizenship after he fled to Britain in 2000. He co-authored a book alleging that officers of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, were responsible for apartment bombings in 1999 that officials blamed on Chechen rebels and that were cited among the justification for resuming the Chechen war that year.

Britain seeks the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, another former FSB agent, to face trial in the killing. Russia says its constitution bans such extraditions.

Russia initially suggested that Lugovoi could be tried at home if Britain presented compelling evidence. That offer was rejected by Britain, and Lugovoi later won a seat in the Russian parliament, giving him immunity from prosecution.

Complicating the situation, Russia resents Britain's refusal to extradite tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist envoy Akhmed Zakayev, both of whom are harsh critics of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin and who were granted asylum in Britain.

Britain reiterated Friday that the British Council's presence in Russia was consistent with international law and sanctioned under a 1994 bilateral agreement. It said Russia - by refusing to extradite Lugovoi and targeting the British Council - would be responsible for any damage to the relationship.

"For Russia to carry out its threat against the British Council would ... constitute a serious attack against the legitimate cultural agent of the British government. It would show a disregard for the rule of law," the British Foreign Office said. "It would penalize the thousands of Russian citizens who benefit from the council's activities. And it would only damage Russia's reputation around the world."

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