Britain made a bold extradition request Tuesday for a former KGB bodyguard in the poisoning death of an ex-Soviet spy turned Kremlin critic. Russia immediately refused the request, creating a standoff with Europe's leading energy supplier and threatening to plunge relations to a post-Cold War low.
British prosecutors say they have enough evidence to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. Lugovoi met with Litvinenko at a London hotel the day his tea was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive substance.
Lugovoi, a former KGB bodyguard, denied involvement Tuesday, saying the charges were politically motivated.
The Russian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office, and Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said it expected full cooperation.
"Murder is murder; this is a very serious case," Blair's spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "The manner of the murder was also very serious because of the risks to public health."
On his deathbed, the 43-year-old Litvinenko accused President Vladimir Putin of being behind his killing. He had also accused Russian authorities of being behind a deadly 1999 apartment blast and the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The Russian government has denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death.
Although there is an extradition agreement between Russia and Britain, Russian law forbids the extradition of nationals.
The Russian prosecutor-general's office said it would not hand over Lugovoi to British authorities. "Citizens of Russia cannot be turned over to foreign states," spokeswoman Marina Gridneva told reporters.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was awaiting more details on the charge from British prosecutors, but also signaled that Lugovoi's extradition was unlikely.
"As far as the question of extradition is concerned, it is well-known that turning over Russian citizens to foreign nations contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation," the ministry said.
A formal extradition request would be handed to the Russians this week.
Russian prosecutors said Lugovoi could be tried in Russia, but Litvinenko's widow, Marina, dismissed such a scenario.
"Everything that happened, happened here," she said.
Radioactive traces were found at a dozen sites across London after Litvinenko's death Nov. 23, including three hotels, a soccer stadium, two planes and an office building used by self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
In Britain, 700 people were tested for polonium contamination, while 670 were tested abroad. All were eventually released.
Relations between Britain and Russia have long been sour.
Britain has refused to turn over Russian exiles, including Chechen opposition leader Akhmed Zakayev and Berezovsky &
once an influential Kremlin insider who fell out with Putin and fled to Britain in 2000 to avoid a money-laundering investigation.
British officials have complained of growing numbers of Russian spies operating within Britain. Russia last year passed a law that allowed security forces to use force abroad against people considered threats.
Russia's Federal Security Service, meanwhile, accused four British diplomats of spying after state-run television said British diplomats had contacted Russian agents using communications equipment hidden in a fake rock in a Moscow park.
"This is the latest wrinkle in our relations," said a British government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. He said he doubted Britain would back down.
Britain's ambassador to Russia, Anthony Brenton, has recently complained of being harassed by a pro-Kremlin Russian youth group called Nashi. He has been heckled on speaking engagements and trailed by group members carrying banners, shouting abuse and blocking his car.
Analysts say Britain's push for extradition could backfire.
Britain exports oil and gas but depleting supplies have raised concerns about future reliance on the Gulf states and Russia.
The European Union gets a third of its oil and about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia.
One-fifth of the world's gas reserves are in Russia and are controlled by Gazprom, the giant Russian utility. Gazprom, which has a minor presence in Britain, is targeting 20 percent of the domestic gas market by 2015.
"It's foolish," said London-based ex-U.S. intelligence officer Bob Ayers. "Russia is becoming a monopoly when it comes to energy supplies in Europe and the last thing you want to do is jeopardize that supply."
Russia's image abroad has suffered under Putin, who tried to build personal ties with leaders of Western countries, such as former French President Jacques Chirac, many of whom are gone. Some new leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have taken a harder stance with Russia.
Blair himself has raised concerns about human rights abuses under Putin.
Stanislav Belkovsky, founder of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute think tank, said the standoff may further weaken Russia's image in the West but in the end, most countries will be wary of angering Putin.
"If cornered, Putin could take unattractive and unpredictable actions with seriously dangerous consequences," Belkovsky said.
Lugovoi joined the KGB in 1987 after serving in the Kremlin guard corps. During his time in the KGB he provided security for Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, among others.
He also headed a group of guards for Berezovsky, who at that time was deputy head of the Russian Security Council, and later headed the security corps for ORT television, Russia's most widely broadcast channel. He now has a security company and has interests in the production of the Russian drink kvas.
"I consider this decision to be political, I did not kill Litvinenko," Lugovoi was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti news agency. "I can only express a well-founded distrust for the so-called basis of proof collected by British judicial officials."
In televises comments, he said he considered himself a victim in the case.
"My family and I were exposed to radiation while we were in Britain and for this I demand proper accountability," Lugovoi said.
Associated Press Writer Mike Eckel contributed to this report from Moscow.
Britain seeks extradition of Russian in poisoning death of ex-spy, starting diplomatic row