Cameron, Medvedev seek to mend damaged ties

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David Cameron pledged to rebuild ties with Russia Monday as he met President Dmitry Medvedev on the first visit to Moscow by a British leader since the 2006 poisoning of a Kremlin critic in London.

While they failed to resolve a dispute about the case itself and remained at odds over Syria, Prime Minister Cameron and Medvedev emphasised their desire to turn over a new leaf as they oversaw trade deals worth more than $300 million.

"If we can build a stronger relationship, I believe both our countries will gain," Cameron said during a joint press conference at the Kremlin.

"We have managed to largely overcome some existing difficulties," Medvedev said as the two leaders showed off their camaraderie by smiling profusely and calling each other by their first names.

"Judging by our faces we are not too frozen, are we?" the Kremlin chief quipped, and even joked that Cameron would make a good KGB spy.

Relations between London and Moscow have been strained ever since Alexander Litvinenko -- a former KGB agent and fierce critic of the current Russian premier Vladimir Putin -- died from polonium poisoning in London.

Russia's refusal to to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect in the murder who later became a lawmaker, led to a sharp deterioration in ties under the former Labour government in London.

Medvedev again blanked any suggestion that Lugovoi could be handed over to face British justic, bluntly saying it was "not possible" to extradite him.

"We all have to learn to respect our legal norms," Medvedev said.

Cameron also acknowledged persisting differences, but stressed the legal row should not stand in the way of stronger business ties.

"There are still issues between the two governments... There are legal issues," Cameron told reporters.

Asked by a reporter about how London could pursue closer business relations with a Kremlin flatly refusing to extradite Lugovoi, "This issue has not been parked. The fact is the two governments do not agree... I do not think that means we freeze the entire relationship."

Britain is currently Russia's fifth largest trading partner and Cameron is seeking to boost business ties and defend the interests of British firms operating in Russia, including the troubled energy giant BP.

At the Kremlin, the two leaders signed a slew of business cooperation deals including for Rolls-Royce to cooperate with Russia's state nuclear conglomerate Rosatom.

Speaking earlier to students in Moscow, Cameron estimated the total value of the deals at 215 million pounds ($340 million).

Cameron, who is set later in the day to meet with Prime Minister Putin, considered Russia's paramount leader, had come under strong domestic pressure to bring up Litvinenko's case at the meetings.

Britain links Litvinenko's killing to Lugovoi, another retired Russian agent who allegedly wanted to remove a dangerous opponent with secret knowledge concerning Putin's past.

Moscow has refused London's request to extradite the suspect and accuses London of having botched the investigation while using the case to discredit Russia.

The breakdown in relations under successive Labour governments has been one of the most serious between Russia and any Western power in the past decade.

Britain has suffered most from Russia's subsequent refusal to share intelligence on counter-terror operations and crime fighting data.

Medvedev and Cameron both said the two countries could cooperate on counter-terrorism, among other joint interests.

The two said they also discussed the Syria crisis but acknowledged their differences, with Moscow reiterating it did not support sanctions against its traditional Middle Eastern ally.

© 2011 AFP

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