Putin Faces Barrage in Death of Ex-Spy

The Associated Press
Sunday, November 26, 2006; 3:33 PM

LONDON -- A British Cabinet minister accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "attacks on individual liberty and on democracy" and said Sunday that relations with Moscow were strained after a former KGB agent was poisoned to death in London.

Peter Hain, the government's Northern Ireland Secretary, said Putin's tenure had been clouded by incidents "including an extremely murky murder of the senior Russian journalist" Anna Politkovskaya.

They were the strongest comments leveled at Moscow since Alexander Litvinenko died Thursday from poisoning by the radioactive element polonium-210. In a dramatic statement dictated from his hospital bed and read outside the hospital after his death, the Kremlin critic accused the "barbaric and ruthless" Putin of ordering his poisoning.

"His success in binding what is a disintegrating nation together with an economy that was collapsing into Mafioso style chaos, his success in that must be balanced against the fact there have been huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy," Hain said of Putin. "And it's important that he retakes the democratic road in my view," he told British Broadcasting Corp. He agreed when asked if relations with Moscow were at a "tricky stage."

British officials have so far avoided blaming Moscow for Litvinenko's death and Hain did not comment directly on the case.

But opposition leaders demanded Sunday that the government explain what it knows about the poisoning and, in particular, how the deadly nuclear material used to poison the 43-year-old Litvinenko found its way into Britain.

Litvinenko told police he believed he was poisoned Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of Politkovskaya, another critic of Putin's government. The ex-spy was moved to intensive care last week after his hair fell out, his throat became swollen, and his immune and nervous systems suffered severe damage.

London's Metropolitan Police said they were investigating a "suspicious death," rather than a murder. They have not ruled out the possibility that Litvinenko may have poisoned himself.

Litvinenko's friends and allies in London's Russian emigre community blamed Putin, who has denied any involvement and called the death a tragedy.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment Sunday on Hain's remarks.

Home Secretary John Reid, Britain's top law-and-order official, refused to speculate about who might have killed Litvinenko. "I don't think it's for me as a politician to be making judgments that a policeman should make," he told Scotland's Radio Clyde.

The main opposition Conservative Party demanded the government make a statement in the House of Commons on Monday outlining what it knew about the case and how polonium-210 _ a rare radioactive element usually produced in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator _ got into Britain.

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