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UK body shuts Russia offices
British Council move comes amid worsening ties between Kremlin and London.
Last Modified: 17 Jan 2008 23:41 GMT
David Miliband, the UK foreign minister, says Russia
is intimidating British Council staff [EPA]

The British Council has closed down its offices in the Russian cities of Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg after its local staff were questioned by the country's spy agency.
 
In a statement to the House of Commons, David Miliband, Britiain's foreign minister, described Russia's actions as "reprehensible" and "not worthy of a great country".
Miliband said that similar acts had been seen in the Cold War but Britain had thought such antics were in the past.

He said that Kremlin's behaviour was a "stain on Russia's reputation and standing" but said that he would not make retaliatory moves against Russian cultural bodies in Britain.
The British Council is a cultural organisation partly funded by the British foreign ministry.

Frayed ties

Miliband told the MPs: "Russia has failed to show any legal reasons under Russian or international law why the British Council should not continue to operate.

"The Russian government initiated a campaign of intimidation against our staff"

Martin Davidson, British Council
chief executive
"Such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country, and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates."

The British Council announced just before Miliband spoke on Thursday that it was suspending operations in the two cities, saying the Russian authorities had made it impossible for them to continue working.

"The Russian government initiated a campaign of intimidation against our staff," Martin Davidson, the British Council's chief executive, said.

More than 20 Russian employees were summoned by the FSB security service to attend individual interviews while 10 more were visited at home by the Russian tax police, the council said.

The FSB said it had invited the Russian employees of the British Council for interviews to warn them that they might be used by Britain "in provocative games".

'Blatant imtimidation'

The foreign minister accused Moscow of "blatant intimidation" over the incident earlier this week.

Miliband said Russia had "failed to substantiate" claims that the British Council is avoiding paying tax and said it had complied with all requests from tax authorities.

"Therefore, instead of taking legal action against the council, the Russian government has resorted to the intimidation of council staff," he said.

"I am confident the whole house will share the anger and dismay felt by this government at the actions of the Russian government.

"The longer-term cost is their country's standing in the world as a responsible international player."

It is the latest incident in a string of recent spats between Moscow and London.

Relations started deteriorating after the killing of ex-KGB agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian businessman, who British prosecutors want to charge in the case.

Miliband said the dispute over Litvinenko's death and the activities of the British Council were "entirely separate issues" and warned against treating cultural links as a "political football".
Source:
Agencies
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