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Suspect: British involved in spy’s death?

AP PhotoRussian businessman Andrei Lugovoi enters Interfax news agency for a news conference in Moscow, Thursday.
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MOSCOW ” After months of saying very little, the former KGB agent accused of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko said in a lengthy statement Thursday that Britain’s secret services may have had a hand in the murder.

Andrei Lugovoi’s sensational claim, which was certain to further damage relations between Moscow and London, was part of an elaborate tale that included a secret codebook and a supposed British plot to smear Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But he offered no evidence to back his claims, and for some his explanation created more confusion than clarity.

Litvinenko, a renegade member of the Russian secret services hated by many former colleagues, died in a London hospital last November after ingesting radioactive polonium-210. He accused Putin on his deathbed of being behind his killing ” charges the Kremlin has angrily denied.

Lugovoi, who met with Litvinenko on Nov. 1 in London, hours before the former agent fell ill, described the British accusations against him as an effort to shift suspicion away from the British spy services, who he said might be implicated in the crime.

He said Litvinenko tried to recruit him to work for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, and to gather compromising materials about Putin and his family.

“It’s hard to get rid of the thought that Litvinenko was an agent who got out of the secret service’s control and was eliminated,” Lugovoi said. “Even if it was not done by the secret service itself, it was done under its control or connivance.”

The British Foreign Office declined comment.

Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who lives in the U.S., told The Associated Press that Lugovoi’s story was “ridiculous,” intended to mask the complicity of Russian security services in Litvinenko’s death.

“Lugovoi was part of this Russian security services team, and they are trying to find stories to cover up the crime that they committed,” he said. “This was just another falsehood, another lie.”

Kalugin, whom Russia convicted in absentia of spying for the West in 2002, added that “one day we will learn that Lugovoi is a hero of Russia, decorated for what he did in London, where he was just carrying out his duty as a Russian officer.”

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told state-supported TV that British officials should investigate “very serious accusations against British secret services.” And the Russian Prosecutor General’s office said it would investigate Lugovoi’s statements as part of its probe into Litvinenko’s killing.

The British security services were unhappy with Litvinenko, Lugovoi claimed, for boasting of contacts with senior MI6 officials and spilling secrets.

“In conversations with me, Litvinenko often went beyond his role as a recruitment agent and told me many things he shouldn’t have said,” Lugovoi said. “I got an impression that he was really getting out of British secret services’ control. He believed that the British undervalued him and paid him too little for his service.”

Lugovoi, an intense and physically fit man, spoke angrily at times during the lengthy news conference. He smiled only twice, when journalists addressed him as “Mr. Litvinenko.”

A businessman who now runs a private security agency, Lugovoi said he wouldn’t go to Britain to face charges because he couldn’t get a fair trial there. He said he considered himself a victim and estimated damages to his business at $25 million.

Lugovoi also claimed that Boris Berezovsky, a Russian billionaire living in London, might have been involved in Litvinenko’s death. He said the former agent was angry after Berezovsky, his longtime friend and patron, reduced his living allowance.

Berezovsky, once a Kremlin insider, fell out with Putin and was granted political asylum in Britain after saying Russian security services planned to kill him. Lugovoi, who once had close ties to Berezovsky, claimed Litvinenko talked about blackmailing the billionaire.

Russia has long sought Berezovsky’s extradition to face what the tycoon says are politically motivated charges of money laundering. Lugovoi claimed that Berezovsky, who briefly served as a deputy secretary of Russia’s presidential Security Council in the 1990s, was an MI6 agent and gave British intelligence sensitive information about Russia.

Berezovsky denied it. “It is absolutely false,” he told the AP. “MI6 absolutely knows who are agents for its organization, it knows Berezovsky is not on that list. This is not the story of Lugovoi, this is the story the Kremlin wants to present to the world. The Kremlin in a corner. Putin is in a corner.”

At the packed news conference, Lugovoi made a series of unsubstantiated allegations, including that Berezovsky had planned a “provocation” against Ivan Rybkin, a 2004 presidential candidate who disappeared for several days and later said he had been drugged.

Rybkin was backed by Berezovsky; his security detail was organized by Lugovoi at the behest of the tycoon.

On Thursday, Rybkin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying he “did not trust” Lugovoi.

Lugovoi also said British intelligence wanted him to “gather compromising materials on Putin and members of his family.” Among other things, he said, British agents wanted him to lure a Russian government official to London so they could blackmail him.

He said he refused to betray his country.

Lugovoi claimed Litvinenko tried to recruit him during one of several business trips to Britain last year. At one point, he said, Litvinenko gave him a book for use in sending coded messages and a cell phone to contact his British spy handlers.

Oleg Gordievsky, a former top KGB spy who worked for MI6 and defected to Britain, dismissed Lugovoi’s claims as “silly fantasies.” He said Litvinenko had worked for a domestic intelligence agency in Russia and was of no interest to British intelligence.

“Litvinenko was not needed,” Gordievsky, who was a friend of Litvinenko, told BBC television. “He made signals that he might be prepared, but they said ‘we don’t need you’ so he didn’t work for MI6.”

Litvinenko fled to Britain in 2000 after accusing the Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the KGB, of plotting to kidnap and kill Berezovsky and other Russians. He co-wrote a book that claimed the security service was behind 1999 apartment bombings that Russian officials blamed on Chechen separatists.

Lugovoi insisted he had no motive to kill Litvinenko and ridiculed media portrayal of him as a “Russian James Bond who got into a nuclear center, poisoned his pal and also poisoned his own wife, children and himself.”

“Sasha wasn’t my enemy,” he said of Litvinenko.


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