Russia: UK ordered us off assassins' trail

Wikileaks: The revelations of a US diplomatic cable are likely to add to tensions over spy's poisoning.

Russia was tracking the assassins of dissident spy Alexander Litvinenko before he was poisoned but was warned off by Britain, which said the situation was "under control", according to claims made in a leaked United States diplomatic cable.

The secret memo, recording a 2006 meeting between an ex-CIA bureau chief and a former KGB officer, is likely to reignite the diplomatic row over Litvinenko's unsolved murder that year, which many espionage experts have linked to the Kremlin.

The memo, written by staff at the US Embassy in Paris, records "an amicable December 7 dinner meeting with ambassador-at-large Henry Crumpton and Russian special presidential representative Anatoliy Safonov", two weeks after Litvinenko's death from polonium poisoning triggered an international manhunt for his killers and spawned a multitude of conspiracy theories.

During the dinner, Crumpton, who ran the CIA's Afghanistan operations before becoming the US ambassador for counter-terrorism, and Safonov, an ex-KGB colonel-general, discussed ways the two countries could work together to tackle terrorism.

The memo records that "Safonov opened the meeting by expressing his appreciation for US/Russian co-operative efforts thus far. He cited the recent events in London - specifically the murder of a former Russian spy by exposure to radioactive agents - as evidence of how great the threat remained and how much more there was to do on the co-operative front." The memo contains an observation from US Embassy officials that Safonov's comments suggested that Russia "was not involved in the killing".

The memo records that, later, Safonov claimed "Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place".

The claim will be rejected in many quarters as a clumsy attempt by Moscow to deflect accusations that its agents were complicit in the assassination.

Although Russia has consistently maintained it had nothing to do with the murder, many espionage experts claim the killing would not have been possible without Kremlin backing.

Shortly before he died, Litvinenko said he met two former KGB agents, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, on the day he fell ill.

Both men deny wrongdoing, but Britain has made a formal request for Lugovoi's extradition.

New evidence linking Russia with the death of Litvinenko was recently produced by Litvinenko's widow, Marina, who obtained documents allegedly showing the country's security service seized a container of polonium weeks before the poisoning.

Moscow disputes the claim.

Several people familiar with the affair said they thought Safonov's claims implausible. But his remarks - effectively questioning the competence of Britain's security services and made in private to one of its closest allies - will do little to heal the fractious relationship between London and Moscow.

- OBSERVER

WIKI BRIEFS

Officials work on hearing

A first formal hearing on Capitol Hill over options for prosecuting Julian Assange could come this week. Building a case solid enough to allow Eric Holder, the United States Attorney-General, to seek Assange's extradition may not be easy. The most obvious first stop might be the 1917 Espionage Act. But when the US Government tried to use it to punish the New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, it failed. Officials said they expected the House judiciary committee to hold an initial hearing on Friday on how the act might be updated to give prosecutors more room for manoeuvre in the digital age.

Concern at Spanish attack

The US grew so concerned about the possibility of an Islamist terrorist attack in Spain in 2007 that it proposed setting up a counterterrorism centre in Barcelona. Three US cables say the US planned the "counterterrorism, anti-crime and intelligence centre" at its consulate. The goal was "combating the target-rich environment of terrorist and criminal activities centred in the region", which has a "presence of over one million Muslims", a 2007 cable says. It is not clear if the centre was ever created.

Supporters call for rally

In a call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US President Barack Obama offered his strongest condemnation yet of WikiLeaks' "deplorable" documents dump. But Spanish online supporters of Assange called for worldwide demonstrations to press for his release from a London jail, where he is awaiting possible extradition to Sweden to face rape allegations. The Spanish website Free Wikileaks urged rallies at 6am today NZT in eight Spanish cities. Similar demonstrations were planned in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Bogota and Lima.

Chavez 'another Hitler'

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was ready to order troops to cross into Venezuela and capture rebel leaders in January 2008. Uribe also told visiting US congressmen, according to another newly released document from December 2007, that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez represented a threat to South America similar to the one Adolf Hitler once posed to Europe. Uribe believed "the best counter to Chavez ... remains action - including use of the military", according to a January 28, 2008, report from the US Embassy in Bogota that was published by El Pais.

Trouble with word

The captain and crew of an American Airlines flight were briefly detained in 2008 after a crew member advised passengers to set their watches to "local Chavez time" upon arrival in Caracas, according to a confidential US report released by WikiLeaks. Chavez in 2007 created a new time zone for Venezuela, moving the clock back half an hour on a permanent basis. The US Embassy report, from October 1, 2008, said there appeared to be a misunderstanding over one crucial word in the crew member's announcement: "local" versus "loco" - which means crazy in Spanish. It was reported that the crew member had announced "the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women".

- Agencies

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