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British council closure due to Litvinenko case - ambassador

RIA Novosti

21/12/2007 22:11 LONDON, December 21 (RIA Novosti) - A crisis in Russia-U.K. relations was the cause of the closure of the British Council's regional offices in Russia from January 1, 2008, Russia's ambassador to London, Yury Fedotov, said on Friday.

The ambassador met with Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Peter Ricketts on Thursday.

"The British council, unfortunately, fell hostage to a failure to reach an agreement on a bilateral cultural agreement, defining the council's legal status," Fedotov said, adding that the British Council's activities in Russia were being carried out on a very 'precarious' legal basis.

Talks on the agreement were halted this summer due to a crisis in bilateral relations, caused by the Litvinenko affair.

Relations between the two countries hit an all-time low following the murder of Kremlin critic and security service defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. In July 2007 London expelled Russian diplomats, imposed visa restrictions and suspended anti-terrorism cooperation with Russia after it refused to extradite the main suspect in the case. Moscow followed suit.

"The relations between our countries were marred by the U.K.'s move over the Litvinenko case," the ambassador said, adding that London's attempts to aggravate bilateral relations failed to reach the desirable effect of making Russia introduce unilateral concessions, but "seriously aggravated Russian-U.K. cooperation."

The U.K. Foreign Office has called on Russia to urgently review its decision to close the British Council offices in Russia's regions.

The British Council, whose Russian offices were raided by tax police in 2004, has been involved in three years of legal wrangling with authorities over alleged non-payment of tax and questions over its legal status.

The non-governmental organization, which is the cultural arm of the British Embassy and promotes education and cultural programs, first established an office in Moscow in the 1990s, going on to open a further 14 offices across Russia.

Russia's Foreign Ministry earlier said there was no bilateral status agreement in place to permit the opening of these regional offices, and the British Council had in fact made no requests to open the branches.

Britain argued that the British Council's presence in Russia was "entirely consistent with international law, including the Vienna Conventions," with the British foreign secretary also referring to "a 1994 U.K./Russia Agreement on Cooperation in Education, Science and Culture, signed by Russia."

However, London reiterated that it was willing to develop cooperation with Moscow.

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