Exiled Billionaire Claims Russia Sent Hit Man to Kill Him
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 5:40 PM
LONDON, July 18 -- Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian billionaire and one of the most vocal critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Wednesday that police in London last month arrested and deported a hit man sent from Russia to kill him.
British officials declined to confirm or deny Berezovsky's allegations, which come as relations between London and Moscow have reached lows rarely seen since the Cold War.
Asked for comment on Berezovsky's claim, Scotland Yard issued a statement that did not mention Berezovsky. It said a man was arrested in London on June 21 on "suspicion of conspiracy to murder," was released without charges two days later and was turned over to the immigration service. "We are not elaborating further," the statement said.
A British security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not discuss the details of Berezovsky's allegations, but said: "Berezovsky is a fairly high-profile critic of the Putin regime. And past experience does show us that the Russians are on occasion prepared to take action against their critics abroad."
Berezovsky, 61, a mathematician-turned-businessman who was once a political ally of Putin, has been at the center of the growing tensions between the two governments.
Relations began to sour late last year after Alexander Litvinenko, a Berezovsky friend and former Russian security agent, died in London, poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. British prosecutors accused Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB agent, of the murder.
This week, Britain announced it would expel four Russian diplomats in response to Moscow's refusal to send Lugovoy to Britain for trial.
The Kremlin so far has not officially retaliated for the explusion. But Russian officials have long complained that Britain has repeatedly refused their requests to extradite Berezovsky. Russian officials have charged him with a host of crimes, including fraud and plotting a violent overthrow of Putin's government.
Berezovsky denies those allegations. British officials agree with Berezovsky's contention that the charges are politically motivated.
Putin supporters dismissed Berezovsky's claims of a murder attempt. "He tries to present himself as a political opposition leader and attracts attention to his personality in order to distract attention away from his money-laundering operations," said Yury Fedotov, the Russian ambassador to Britain.
"I don't think there was any attempt to kill Boris Berezovsky," Sergey Markov, director of the Political Research Institute in Moscow and a Kremlin loyalist, said in a telephone interview. "Who would try to kill Berezovsky? The Russian authorities? For sure, no. Business rivals? I think it's almost impossible because Mr. Berezovsky is watched by at least a dozen different intelligent services."
Markov said he believes Berezovsky's claims are part of his "big public relations campaign to undermine Putin."
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Berezovsky said he believes Putin was behind the attempt on his life. He offered no proof for that allegation and said police had asked him not to reveal details of the plot.
By his account, police warned him of the threat and urged him to leave the country, which he said he did on June 16. He said he believed he was a target because he was an "important witness" in the Litvinenko case. Putin's government has targeted him because he is a financial backer of political opposition in Russia, he asserted, saying he has given $600 million to $800 million to Putin's political opponents in recent years.
Alex Goldfarb, a Berezovsky associate who has written a book about Litvinenko with Litvinenko's widow, Marina, said he learned of the plot against Berezovsky on June 16. He and Marina Litvinenko, he recounted, arrived for a birthday party in her honor that day at the home of Akhmed Zakayev, an exiled Chechen separatist who has lived in Britain since 2002. He said there was a heavy police presence at the party, and officers told him they were there to protect him, Zakayev, Marina Litvinenko and others in Berezovsky's circle.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.