A UK judge released the results of the drawn-out inquiry into the death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Among the explosive allegations in Judge Robert Owen's report is that Russian President Vladimir Putin "probably approved" the poisoning of Litvinenko's tea with radioactive polonium.
"The FSB (Russian security agency) operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by ... President Putin," said Owen from London's High Court.
The report claims that Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, both ex-KGB agents themselves, administered the fatal polonium-210 isotope at a London hotel, under the pretense of meeting up with old colleagues.
Both have long denied the charges, which have been circulating since soon after Litvinenko's death. Lugovoi has even gone so far as to blame British intelligence agents for the incident. Moscow, for its parts, has refused to extradite them.
But Owen made no bones about the two men's involvement. "I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun were acting under the direction of others when they poisoned Mr Litvinenko," he wrote, adding that they were likely directed by the FSB.
Responding to the report, Lugovoi called the judge's findings "absurd," according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
The Kremlin also slammed the findings, calling it "clearly politically motivated."
"We would like to note that the Russian position on this matter remains unchanged and is well known. We regret that a purely criminal case has been politicized and clouded the overall atmosphere of bilateral relations," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
"It's obvious that the decision to cease the coroner investigation and begin the public hearing was clearly politically motivated," she added, alluding to the decision on the UK's part to switch from a private's coroner's inquest to a public inquiry.
Owen heard the testimony of 62 witnesses over a 6-month period, and the inquiry he led included confidential intelligence briefings.
Litvinenko, once a member of Putin’s inner circle, broke with the Russian leader in 2000 and fled to England. There he became an outspoken critic of the Kremlin under Putin and is said to have provided information to British intelligence services.
Britain threatens sanctions
In light of Russia's response, the UK has said it was already moving to implement sanctions against Moscow, such as assest freezes for Lugovoi and Kovtun, if the refusal to extradite them continues. The British government has already summoned the Russian ambassador to London over the report.
"The conclusion that the murder was authorized at the highest levels of the Russian state is extremely disturbing," Prime Minister David Cameron's pokeswoman told reporters. "It is not the way for any state, let alone a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to behave."
es/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)