Ex-spy investigation moves to Moscow amid tensions

(AFP) - A British investigation into the radiation poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has moved to Moscow, testing Russian authorities' willingness to cooperate with the probe.

A group of British counter-terrorism officers who arrived in Moscow on Monday are "starting work today and they are going to carry on as long as necessary to complete the part of the investigation taking place in Moscow," British embassy spokesman Anjoum Noorani told AFP Tuesday.

Noorani declined to say who the investigators would meet, although he did say that there were no plans for them to travel outside Moscow elsewhere in Russia.

Russia's prosecutor general, which is coordinating the visit for the Russian side, said earlier it was ready to help in the investigation, which has put strains on the two countries' relationship, reports Trend.

The visit promises to be a sensitive one as Litvinenko, who died in London on November 23 after being poisoned with the radioactive substance polonium-210, accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering the poisoning in a letter released after his death.

Russian newspapers said that the British officers would most of all want to question Andrei Lugovoi, a former Russian secret service officer who heads a private security firm and who together with two colleagues met Litvinenko in London on November 1, the day he fell fatally ill.

"The police are interested in why traces of radiation were found on the planes on which Mr Lugovoi flew to London and returned to Moscow and also in rooms in two London hotels where he stayed," said the influential daily Kommersant.

Contacted by AFP, a receptionist at the Pershin security company headed by Lugovoi in Moscow declined to give details of his whereabouts.

Kommersant predicted that the meeting with Lugovoi might not take place as he and his family had returned to hospital for a second round of medical checks -- after he was discharged from hospital last Friday and declared himself "absolutely clean".

The British investigators were also unlikely to meet former intelligence agent Mikhail Trepashkin, who has reportedly asked to meet them but is serving a jail term in the Ural mountains town of Nizhny Tagil for revealing state secrets. He is said to be gravely ill.

A spokesman for the prisons department told AFP that "no state" in the world would allow such a meeting given Trepashkin's crime.

"The British investigators risk returning to London empty-handed," Kommersant commented.

Russia has voiced irritation at repeated statements by British officials stressing the need for Moscow's cooperation.

However Noorani on Tuesday was positive about that cooperation.

"So far the Russian authorities have said through people like Putin that they're ready to cooperate... We very much rely on that cooperation and so far we've been receiving good levels of cooperation," Noorani said.

The mass circulation daily Izvestia meanwhile said that Lugovoi had in fact met with Litvinenko four times between mid-October and November 1 and had at least once met the exiled businessman and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, who had close ties to Litvinenko.

The paper repeated allegations that Litvinenko had been involved in trading in radioactive materials and may have been involved with Chechen militants trying to create a "dirty bomb".

Given Litvinenko and Berezovsky's links with Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev, "one can't exclude that the bomb was being created in Britain," Izvestia said.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the spy case was "of course harming our relations" and that it was "unacceptable that a campaign should be whipped up with the participation of officials".

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov played down Litvinenko's significance to Russian authorities in an interview published Tuesday in the Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia.

Speculation "that Litvinenko was a distinguished agent who knew a lot do not correspond to reality at all," Ivanov said.

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