Monday, November 27, 2006

LONDON — A British Cabinet minister yesterday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “attacks on individual liberty and on democracy” as relations between Britain and Russia grew increasingly strained in the wake of the fatal poisoning of a former KGB agent who became a British citizen.

Peter Hain, the government’s Northern Ireland secretary, said Mr. Putin’s tenure has been clouded by incidents “including an extremely murky murder of the senior Russian journalist” Anna Politkovskaya.

His are the strongest comments leveled at Moscow since Alexander Litvinenko, the one-time KGB agent who has lived in London with his family for several years, died Thursday from poisoning by the radioactive element polonium 210. He had been investigating the death of Mrs. Politkovskaya. In a dramatic statement dictated from his hospital bed and read outside the hospital shortly after his death, he accused the “barbaric and ruthless” Mr. Putin of ordering his poisoning.

Mr. Hain was similarly harsh in his assessment of the Russian president. “His success in binding what is a disintegrating nation together with an economy that was collapsing into Mafioso-style chaos, his success in that must be balanced against the fact there have been huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy,” he told a BBC interviewer. “And it’s important that he retakes the democratic road in my view.”

British officials have so far avoided blaming Moscow for Mr. Litvinenko’s death, and Mr. Hain did not comment directly on the case.

[London’s Guardian newspaper reported last night that a senior source at the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that “he had no doubt that the killing of Litvinenko was an organized ‘operation’ which bore all the hallmarks of a foreign intelligence agency. The expert in radioactive materials said the ability to obtain polonium 210 and the knowledge needed to use it to kill Litvinenko meant that the attack could not have been carried out by a ‘lone assassin.’ “]

Opposition Conservative Party leaders demanded yesterday that the government explain what it knows about the poisoning and, in particular, how the deadly nuclear material used to poison the 43-year-old Mr. Litvinenko, perhaps sprayed or sprinkled on his food in a London sushi restaurant, got into Britain.

Mr. Litvinenko told police he thought he was poisoned Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of Mrs. Politkovskaya by a person or persons unknown. Mr. Litvinenko was moved to intensive care last week after his hair fell out, his throat became swollen, and his immune and nervous systems suffered severe damage.

London Metropolitan Police say they are investigating a “suspicious death,” carefully not calling it murder. They have not even ruled out the possibility, however unlikely, that Mr. Litvinenko poisoned himself. His death was described as “agonizing.”

Mr. Litvinenko’s friends and allies in London’s Russian emigre community blame Mr. Putin, who has denied his government’s involvement. After first denying that it was “a violent death,” Mr. Putin has called Mr. Litvinenko’s death a “tragedy”.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment yesterday on Mr. Hain’s remarks. Home Secretary John Reid, Britain’s top law-and-order official, has declined to speculate about who might have killed Mr. Litvinenko. “I don’t think it’s for me as a politician to be making judgments that a policeman should make,” he told Scotland’s Radio Clyde.

The Conservatives demanded the government make a statement in the House of Commons today outlining what it knows about the death and how polonium 210 — a rare radioactive element usually produced in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — got into Britain.

Mr. Litvinenko’s contaminated body was released to a coroner late Saturday, and government pathologists await recommendations on whether it is safe for them to perform an autopsy.

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