President Vladimir Putin probably approved a 2006 Russian intelligence operation to murder ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London, a British inquiry concluded on Thursday.
Russia, which had declined to cooperate in the inquiry, cautioned pointedly that it could “poison” relations.
Britain accused the Kremlin of uncivilized behavior but did not immediately signal it would take any stronger action.
Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years to the day before he was poisoned, died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London’s Millennium Hotel, Reuters reported.
An inquiry led by senior British judge Robert Owen found that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy and another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, carried out the killing as part of an operation probably directed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main heir to the Soviet-era KGB, the news agency said.
“The FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev, then head of the FSB, and also by President Putin,” Owen said.
“I have concluded that there is a strong probability that when Mr. Lugovoy poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, he did so under the direction of the FSB. I have further concluded that Mr. Kovtun was also acting under FSB direction,” he said.
He said Litvinenko’s work for British intelligence agencies, his criticism of the FSB and Putin, and his association with other Russian dissidents were possible motives for his killing, the BBC reported.
There was also “undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism” between Putin and Litvinenko, Owen was quoted as saying.
Litvinenko’s death marked a post-Cold War low point in Anglo-Russian ties, marred further by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would not rule out further action.
But he added: “Do we at some level have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do. But we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.”
Russian news agency Interfax quoted the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying: “This [inquiry] can be seen as the product of the elegant sense of humor of the British, when a public and closed investigation rests on undisclosed information from unnamed intelligence services and the ample use of the words ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’.
“Russia was never the initiator of the freezing of bilateral relations [with the UK]. Such quasi-investigations can undoubtedly only poison the atmosphere of our bilaterial relations even further.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said: “We regret that the purely criminal case was politicized and overshadowed the general atmosphere of bilateral relations.”
Interior minister Theresa May, appearing before parliament, spoke of “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and of civilized behavior”, while the opposition Labour Party described an “unparalleled act of state-sponsored terrorism”.
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