British ambassador issues direct challenge to Russia

Britain's ambassador has issued a direct challenge to Russia over its refusal to extradite the man accused of killing Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, as the confrontation between the two countries was set to escalate Monday.

Russia has refused to turn over former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi on the grounds that the constitution forbids extradition of Russian citizens, but Sir Anthony Brenton said in an interview published Monday that Russia could get around the ban if it wanted to cooperate.

"Russia's constitution, like those of other states, is clearly capable of interpretation in the light of circumstances," he said in an interview with the Interfax news agency and Kommersant newspaper. The ambassador noted specific sections of the constitution that are routinely violated in Russia.

Russia's prosecutors were expected to respond Monday to criticism that they have not cooperated with British investigators in the case. Russia has accused Britain of failing to provide evidence that Lugovoi was involved in the radiation poisoning of Litvinenko, a former KGB colleague.

Lugovoi was one of three Russians who met with Litvinenko in a London hotel on Nov. 1, the day he fell ill, but Lugovoi has denied any involvement in his death.

The politically charged case also was expected to be discussed at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday. The extradition dispute may further complicate efforts by the EU and Russia to draw up a new cooperation agreement to replace the one that expires in December.

Brenton said Britain was not asking Russia to violate its own constitution, "but to work with us creatively to find a way around this impediment, given the serious and unprecedented nature of this murder. Such cooperation has not been forthcoming."