The thickening plot in the radiation murder of Kremlin opponent Alexander Litvinenko took a sensational new twist Thursday. The chief suspect, KGB agent-turned-businessman Andrei Lugovoi told reporters here that he is being framed by MI6, the British intelligence service, which, he claimed, had tried and failed to recruit him.
In a long and rambling statement, Mr. Lugovoi, who was formally charged with murder by British prosecutors last week, shed little light on who may have killed Mr. Litvinenko, or why. But he did lob fresh accusations which, analysts say, could raise the temperature in the already heated war of words between Moscow and London over the Litvinenko affair and might be used by the Kremlin to crack down harder on its domestic opposition.
Lugovoi claimed that both Litvinenko (a former KGB agent) and his sponsor, exiled anti-Kremlin billionaire Boris Berezovsky, were MI6 agents.
The bizarre mystery that swirls around how Litvinenko received a fatal dose of deadly Polonium-210 at a Nov. 1 London meeting with Lugovoi and another former Russian security officer, Dmitry Kovtun, is "a dark political story, where the main roles were played by the British secret services and their agents, Berezovsky and the late Litvinenko," Lugovoi said.
Lugovoi, who once worked as a bodyguard for Mr. Berezovsky's daughter, also said he'd tried in recent years to maintain business relations with the renegade tycoon, but "attempts were made to openly recruit me as a British intelligence service agent.... The British, in fact, suggested that I collect any information that could compromise President [Vladimir] Putin and members of his family," he said.
The British Embassy in Moscow denied Lugovoi's allegations. In an interview with the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station, Berezovsky called them "a campaign of lies organized by the [Russian] state.... I am no MI6 agent. It is the Kremlin that stands behind Litvinenko's murder."
Britain has asked Moscow to turn Lugovoi over to stand trial in London. Russia refused, but officials last week said Lugovoi might be tried in Russia if the British provide the evidence against him.
Lugovoi said he won't go voluntarily, because he does not expect a fair trial. "Britain is making me a scapegoat," he said. "A real war is being waged against me and Russia in the press."
Lugovoi's claims are likely to further sour Russo-British relations. "There is absolutely no confidence [in Russia] toward the evidence collected by British authorities against Lugovoi," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. Mr. Markov says Lugovoi's claims that Litvinenko and Berezovsky worked for British intelligence are "absolutely credible."
Experts say that could translate into bad news for any Russians with links to the tycoon. On Thursday, the Financial Times quoted Berezovsky as saying that he finances various Russian opposition groups, including the Other Russia coalition led by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
"Lugovoi is saying that British secret services are engaged in Berezovsky's activities," while Berezovsky has repeatedly called for an anti-Putin revolution, says Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow chief of the World Security Institute, an independent research group. "Any group in Russia that still receives money from Berezovsky can expect to suffer," he says. "The longer this strange affair continues, the more damage it does to Russia's relations with the West."