Britain, Russia in tit-for-tat diplomat explusions: minister

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Britain and Russia have each expelled a member of each other's embassy staff over espionage allegations, Britain said Tuesday, following a row over the arrest of a young Russian woman in London.

Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement confirming the explusions, which took place earlier this month.

"On 10 December we requested that the Russian Embassy in London withdraw a member of their staff from the UK. This was in response to clear evidence of activities by the Russian intelligence services against UK interests," Hague said.

"Russia responded on 16 December by requesting the removal of a member of our embassy staff in Moscow. We reject any basis for this action.

"Both staff members have now been withdrawn."

Hague added: "We remain open to a more productive relationship with Russia, as with any other country, on the basis of respect for our laws."

The Foreign Office refused to give any further details, saying it had a "longstanding policy not to comment on intelligence matters."

But the explusions come after the arrest of Katya Zatuliveter, a 25-year-old Russian woman who was detained earlier this month and worked in parliament for a backbench Liberal Democrat lawmaker.

The blonde Zatuliveter now faces deportation on suspicion of espionage.

British domestic intelligence agency MI5 said she was working for the Russian intelligence service as a "sleeper" agent, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.

Zatuliveter has denied the charges while Moscow last week blasted London over the affair, accusing it of a "spymania" that resembled a "theatre of the absurd".

Britain's diplomatic relations with Russia are only just emerging from an icy period after the murder by poisoning of the dissident Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Russian officials have spoken of a possible reset in Moscow-London ties after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition under Prime Minister David Cameron came to power in the May elections.

Cameron has said he plans to visit Russia next year.

The two countries are at loggerheads over Russia's refusal to extradite the main suspect in the London murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Hague said "serious differences" existed between the two countries after meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow last month.


© 2010 AFP

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