Mark Tran and agencies
Tuesday July 24, 2007
Vladimir Putin tonight accused Britain of "colonial thinking", in the latest twist in the diplomatic row over the murder of the Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.
In his harshest comments yet on the affair, the Russian president denounced as insulting Britain's extradition demands for Andrei Lugovoi to stand trial in London over the killing.
"What they propose is an obvious vestige of colonial thinking," Mr Putin said on Russian state television. "They must have clearly forgotten that Britain is no longer a colonial power, there are no colonies left and, thank God, Russia has never been a British colony."
Mr Putin has previously said the Russian constitution forbids extradition of its own citizens, but until now he has refrained from such provocative rhetoric.
Britain has accused Mr Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, of killing Mr Litvinenko in London last November, sending relations between the two countries into a sharp downturn.
In a throwback to the cold war, Britain and Russia have engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions. Russia expelled four British diplomats last week, following Britain's decision to send home four Russian middle-ranking embassy officials.
Russia has offered to try Mr Lugovoi in Moscow if Britain presents sufficient evidence against him, but the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Anthony Brenton, this week said this was not an option for British prosecutors who, he stressed, were independent of the government.
"They note that the crime was committed against a British citizen and took place in London. The appropriate venue for the trial is therefore London," he told the Interfax news agency and the Kommersant newspaper.
Despite the tit-for-tat expulsions, Britain and Russia have sought to contain the crisis as both have considerable common economic interests. Many Russian firms are listed in London and the UK energy giants Shell and BP have substantial investments in Russia.
But relations took another turn for the worse last week amid revelations of a second assassination conspiracy.
Senior Whitehall sources said a suspected assassin was intercepted in London last month before he could mount an attempt on the life of Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who has infuriated Mr Putin with his open calls for insurrection in Moscow.
For its part, Russia said Britain's expulsion of four Russian diplomats was politically motivated and unjustified.
"It's their brains, not our constitution, which need to be changed," Mr Putin told activists of pro-Kremlin youth organisations. "What they are offering to us is a clear rudiment of colonial thinking."
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