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British, Russian Diplomatic Dispute Escalates


Britain has warned Russia against what it calls "unacceptable" behavior and intimidation of staff members of British Council cultural centers in Russia. The warning is part of an escalating diplomatic dispute between Britain and Russia that dates back to 2006 and includes the expulsion of several Russian diplomats from Britain last year. VOA's Sonja Pace has more from London.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband pointedly criticized Moscow for its decision to summon local staff members of two British Council cultural centers in Russia for interviews. Miliband called the action "unacceptable."

"Any intimidation or harassment of officials is obviously completely unacceptable," said Miliband.

A spokeswoman for the British Council said local staff in its offices in St. Petersburg and in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg were called in for interviews with Russia's internal security service, the FSB, and were later visited in their homes by interior ministry officials.

The Council spokeswoman also said the head of its operations in St. Petersburg, Stephen Kinnock, was stopped in his car by Russian police late Tuesday and questioned for some time before being given a traffic ticket and then released.

Britain temporarily closed the British Council office in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

These are the just latest incidents in a growing dispute between London and Moscow. Russia insists the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are illegal and ordered them closed down as of January 1. Britain denies that charge and has defied the ban.

The head of Britain's diplomatic service has met with Russia's ambassador to London, and senior British diplomats have been in Moscow to discuss the issue.

"The only losers from any attack on the British Council are Russian citizens who want to use the British Council - one and a quarter million last year - and the reputation of the Russian government and I very much hope there is still time for the Russians to find a way to maintain the very important cultural work that goes on between our two countries," said Foreign Secretary Miliband.

Relations between Russia and Britain have grown increasingly frosty in the past two years. Both sides expelled some of each other's diplomats in mid-2007 after Moscow refused to hand over Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted by British police in connection with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

Litvenenko, a former Russian spy, turned Kremlin opponent, was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London in 2006.

Britain has also angered Russia by refusing to extradite exiled Russian businessman and Kremlin critic, Boris Berezovsky, who has been convicted by a Russian court of embezzlement.

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