Source AP ©

Andrei Lugovoi awaits renewal of British calls for his extradition

The British government's case against the former KGB officer suspected in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko collapsed.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Andrei Lugovoi, who is running for parliament in the Dec. 2 elections, said he expects his accusers to use the Nov. 24 anniversary of Litvinenko's agonizing death from radiation poisoning to renew their calls for his extradition.

But the 43-year-old multimillionaire said the Russian constitution prevents him being handed over and he is not concerned about what British officials and Litvinenko's friends might demand.

"I don't give a damn about this raving and barking from across the channel," said Lugovoi, sitting in his office in the Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel overlooking the Moscow River.

"Several times, Russia's law enforcement system and I have asked the British to provide proof and the evidence against me," he said. "So far, they have no proof of any kind, and everything about the Litvinenko case is politicized. I'm sure, they will not provide anything to anyone, and will keep the issue hot to further discredit Russia on the international scene."

Lugovoi also alleged that the British were being egged on by fugitives wanted in Russia who are living in London, including the billionaire Boris Berezovsky: "Britain has always been a country that allows all sorts of bastards to seek refuge on its territory."

As he has in the past, Lugovoi insisted that he would have returned to Britain to discuss the allegations against him if he had been invited. He seemed to taunt the British secret services, saying that the case against him had essentially collapsed.

"I congratulate MI6 and all British secret services with the loudest flop in their history," he said.

Litvinenko, himself a veteran of Russia's security agencies, co-authored a book accusing former colleagues in Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, of involvement in a series of deadly apartment house bombings in 1999. He fled to Britain in 2000 and was granted political asylum a year later.

Just before his death, Litvinenko was investigating the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and determined critic of President Vladimir Putin.

Litvinenko was poisoned with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210; on his deathbed he blamed Putin. The Kremlin denies the allegation.

Lugovoi, who had met with Litvinenko the day he fell ill, said Litvinenko has been falsely portrayed by the British government.

"What really annoys me is how the British authorities say that Litvinenko was just a dissident writer living in London," he said. "How can we talk about him being a writer when he was actually a traitor working for the English secret services, for which he was paid money?"

He repeated earlier charges that Litvinenko had approached him about working as an informant for the British foreign intelligence service, MI6.

"British intelligence tried to recruit me," Lugovoi said. "They tried to force me to betray Russia."

Last month, London's Daily Mail reported that Litvinenko was paid a monthly retainer of 2,000 pounds (2,780 EUR; US$4,120 ) by British secret services, and that he was recruited by Sir John Scarlett, the head of MI6.

Lugovoi, a fan of the 19th century detective writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, said Litvinenko's death resembles the Sherlock Holmes story "A Study in Scarlet," in which police initially accuse the wrong man. The English title of the story echoes the name of the MI6 chief.

Britain's Crown Prosecution Service announced May 22 that they had enough evidence to charge Lugovoi with poisoning Litvinenko and British authorities requested Lugovoi's extradition a few days later.

But Moscow denied the request in July, citing a constitutional bar against extraditing Russian citizens. London expelled four Russian diplomats and Moscow kicked out four British diplomats shortly thereafter.

As late as last month, British authorities asked for permission to send Scotland Yard investigators to Russia to investigate the case.

Litvinenko fell ill following a meeting with Lugovoi and others in the bar of a London hotel. Tests showed that a teapot at the bar was contaminated by polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope.

Traces of the substance were discovered in several places Lugovoi visited in London, along with at least two airliners he flew on.

Lugovoi said Russian investigators tried and failed to find a similar polonium trail in Moscow, and he accused British intelligence agencies of planting evidence in London. "After my visit to the hotel, people from British intelligence went there to leave polonium deliberately," he said.

Litvinenko died in a British hospital Nov. 23 of organ failure, three weeks after he was stricken. Photos of him near death, with his hair fallen out and his skin turned a sickly yellow, shocked the world.

The Litvinenko case has not caused a rift between Russia and Britain, Lugovoi maintained, because Britain has historically regarded Russia as an enemy and imperial rival: "Britain has always waged a war against Russia - be it cold or hot - and utilized both its capacities and those of its neighbors."

"The Cold War never started or ended, it always has been," he said.

In addition to driving Britain's relations with Russia to a post-Soviet low, the allegations against Lugovoi turned the once-obscure veteran of the Soviet and Russian security services into something of a celebrity.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, in September placed Lugovoi's name among the top three on the party list of candidates for parliament.

A seat in parliament would give Lugovoi legal immunity, but he said that he was running because he felt it was his patriotic duty.

"I got tired of sitting in shade and decided to get out of the trenches and be more active in the whole story," he told AP. "I want Russians to keep Russia great and ignore the experience of so-called Western democracy, which has never done any good."

Asked whether voters believe he is innocent or guilty, Lugovoi said the subject never comes up on the campaign trial. "I've never met anyone who reproached me about this whole affair," he said. "Nobody has said anything."

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