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Russia says it will call shots in Litvinenko probe

Written by: Staff

MOSCOW, Dec 5 (Reuters) Russia's chief prosecutor today said he would help British detectives in Moscow investigate the poisoning death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko but made it crystal clear his officials would be fully in control.

A team of Scotland Yard detectives started work in the Russian capital looking for leads into the death of Litvinenko, an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died in London from a lethal dose of radioactive polonium 210.

The case has strained relations between Moscow and London with the Kremlin angry at Litvinenko's death-bed claim -- given blanket coverage in the British media -- that Putin had ordered his assassination.

''In line with international practice it is us who conduct investigations on Russian territory,'' Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika told a news conference.

''We will do the interviewing and they (the British investigators) can only be present during the questioning... Of course, they can ask us for permission to conduct interviews, which we may or may not grant.'' Chaika also said that if the detectives from London identify any Russian citizens as suspects, they will be tried in a Russian, not a British, court.

Asked about possible extraditions, he said: ''This will not be possible.'' Police to date have neither charged nor identified as a suspect anyone in the Litvinenko case.

Chaika did say, however, his officials would help the British team gain access to Andrei Lugovoy, a Litvinenko associate thought to be of major interest to Scotland Yard.

Lugovoy met Litvinenko in London on November 1, the day the former spy fell ill. Radiation was found at London's Millennium Hotel, where the two men met. Litvinenko died on November 23.

HOSPITAL INTERVIEW Russian media today reported that Lugovoy might not be available to talk to the British detectives because he is in hospital being checked for radiation contamination.

''If the doctors allow it ... he will be questioned without fail,'' Chaika said.

He also dismissed speculation that the polonium 210 had been smuggled into Britain from Russia.

Security experts say it is unlikely Putin was involved in Litvinenko's killing, but they say it is possible it was the work of rogue elements in the security apparatus that Russia inherited from the Soviet KGB.

Some in the Kremlin believe Litvinenko's death is being manipulated for political capital by Boris Berezovsky, a Russian millionaire and implacable Putin critic now living in London.

Four British detectives -- three men and a woman -- were seen arriving at Moscow's Domodedovo airport late yesterday.

Today they met Chaika's deputy and another senior official in the prosecutor's office to establish ground rules for their work, the prosecutor-general said.

Within hours of them starting their work though, there were allegations Moscow was hampering the investigation.

Russian news agencies quoted the prison service as saying it would not allow Mikhail Trepashkin, another former spy who is in prison for divulging state secrets, to meet the detectives. His lawyer said he had valuable information.

''I think in this way they (the Russian authorities) are obstructing the investigation,'' Yelena Lipster, Trepashkin's lawyer, told Reuters.

Chaika said the British team had shown no interest in speaking to Trepashkin. ''About half of all the people sitting in prisons have an interest (in the Litvinenko case),'' he joked.

Mario Scaramella, an Italian contact of Litvinenko said the dead spy's name appeared on a hit list he had seen of people linked to Berezovsky.

''We were all accused -- this was what our killers blamed us with -- of 'having a connection' to Boris Berezovsky,'' Scaramella told Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Reuters SI DB2125

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