Russia expels British journalist for 'breaking rules'
Russia announced Tuesday it had barred the Guardian's Moscow correspondent from the country for breaking media rules but the British paper said he may have been expelled over the WikiLeaks scandal.
Amid a growing outcry over the refusal of the authorities to allow Luke Harding into the country in a Cold War-style incident, the foreign ministry said he could return to Russia once accreditation problems had been resolved.
Harding flew back to the Russian capital at the weekend after two months in London reporting on the contents of the US cables, given to his paper by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
But he was refused entry when his passport was checked on arrival and after 45 minutes in an airport cell was sent back to Britain on the next available plane, according to the Guardian.
The Guardian said the incident was believed to be the first removal of a British staff journalist from the country since the end of the Cold War.
But in a statement released late Tuesday, the foreign ministry attempted to play down the case, saying it was due to procedural violations and Harding could in theory return to Russia.
"He broke a number of rules for foreign correspondents of which all journalists are well aware," it said.
The ministry added that if he "complies with these rules, which apply to all foreign correspondents, there should be no problems for L. Harding's entry to the Russian Federation."
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later explained that Harding had illegally reported from parts of the North Caucasus where Russian troops were conducting so-called counter-terrorist operations.
"He admitted that he had behaved incorrectly and asked that we extend his visa through May as an exception, which we did," Lavrov said.
The Guardian said in a statement that it was "baffled" by the Russian explanation.
"This is part of a pattern of behaviour by the Russian foreign ministry who first expelled Luke Harding in November 2010. That expulsion was partially delayed after intervention by the British government, but it was understood that Luke would have to leave by May 2011.
"We did not make this public at the time but it discredits attempts to portray this week's expulsion as an administrative error," the Guardian said.
Harding also said he believed that more senior authorities than the Russian foreign ministry were behind his expulsion.
"Someone other than the foreign ministry is behind this," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Harding as saying in London. "My expulsion is related to my reports from Russia."
Confirming those suspicions, a Russian security source told RIA Novosti that Harding's name was on a list of undesirable persons and the demand for him not to be allowed to enter Russia came from "one of the Russian (security) structures."
The source did not specify further but the comment indicated the demand may have come from the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) or the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The Guardian said an FSB official at the airport told Harding: "For you Russia is closed."
The incident was also the subject of a phone conversation between Foreign Secretary William Hague and Lavrov, who is due to visit London next week.
Harding's expulsion follows his reporting in December on assessments of modern Russia from the US cables, which listed a string of damaging allegations about the links between top officials, oligarchs and organised crime.
A Spanish prosecutor was quoted describing Russia as a "mafia state", while a top US official was cited questioning whether Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin knew beforehand about a plot to kill dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
The claims prompted an irritated reaction from Putin and also surfaced just as Russia was basking in the triumph of being awarded the right to host the 2018 World Cup, one of the greatest coups of the Putin era.
© 2011 AFP