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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 so long as accreditation problems were fixed.

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.

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger said that “this is clearly a very troubling development with serious implications for press freedom.”

“Russia’s treatment of journalists — both domestic and foreign — is a cause of great concern,” he added in a statement released by the newspaper.

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 incident, 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.

Harding had applied for a new journalist’s accreditation in November but then left Moscow for London on personal business without receiving the new press card, the foreign ministry said.

He left “without receiving his (newly) issued foreign journalist’s accreditation despite knowing that he must” obtain one.

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.”

Yet a security source had earlier told the RIA Novosti agency 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 head of President Dmitry Medvedev’s human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, said that such cases were “extremely rare” and the advisory body would try to help the newspaper if approached.

“There have to be some very serious reasons to stop a journalist from entering the country,” he told RIA Novosti. The human rights council “always tries to help journalists in such situations.”

Foreign Secretary William Hague telephoned the Russian foreign ministry to seek an explanation for Harding’s expulsion, the Foreign Office said.

Officials said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, due to visit London next week for bilateral talks aimed at smoothing ties, had promised Hague he would explain the incident.

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.