British-Russian tensions mount

Russia has summoned the British ambassador and imposed sanctions after the British Council defied a government ban to close two offices in Russia, heightening diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

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The Foreign Ministry accused Britain in a statement of “premeditated provocation” and said it will stop issuing visas for new expatriate employees at the British Council branches in Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

The ministry also said it will block accreditation renewals for current employees and launch an inquiry for alleged tax debts against the council's Saint Petersburg office.

The British Council, which promotes the country's culture and education abroad, has been involved in a long-running dispute with Russian authorities over its legal status.

“We will respond in due course,” James Barbour, a spokesman for Britain's ambassador to Moscow Anthony Brenton, told news agency AFP after the British envoy came out of talks with the Foreign Ministry on the dispute.

“Our position all along has been that any move against the British Council by Russia would be a breach of international and Russian law.”

Ban “unacceptable”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last month that the British Council was “fully entitled” to operate in Russia and that the ban on its activities was “totally unacceptable.”

The Russian order to close the British Council branches ratcheted up tensions already exacerbated by the 2006 murder by radiation poisoning of ex-Russian agent and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Diplomats were expelled on both sides last summer after Moscow refused to hand over former secret service bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi, the man wanted by Britain for allegedly killing Litvinenko.

Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium that was slipped into his tea in a London hotel, British prosecutors say. Mr Lugovoi, who was recently elected to Russia's parliament, denies the British charges.

Moscow said the British Council ban was in response to Britain's expulsion of the four Russian diplomats. Those expulsions also came on the heels of a spy scandal in 2006 in which Russia accused British diplomats of espionage.

The reopening of the council offices after a winter holiday break came despite a Foreign Ministry order that the branches of the British Council close from the start of the year.

“The British Council wants to continue its work in Russia and Saint Petersburg. We hope we'll find a solution to this,” the head of the Saint Petersburg branch, Stephen Kinnock, told journalists.

“The British Council is a non-political independent organisation. We work in the areas of culture and education…. It's really disappointing that we've been dragged into what is essentially a political matter,” Kinnock told AFP.

Russia has accused the British Council of operating outside its official status and of violating tax regulations, charges the council denies.

The council operates as a department of the British embassy under a 1994 accord on cultural, scientific and educational ties.

It has greatly scaled back its number of offices in Russia from 15 in 2005 to the current three, although British Council staff insist this is for operational reasons rather than due to pressure by the authorities.