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Brown irked as Russia bans British Council

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on Moscow yesterday to halt its plan to close offices of the British government's cultural arm in the Russian regions, describing it as unacceptable.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry said British statements about the affair were provocative and risked making the spat between the two countries worse.

British-Russian relations have sunk to their lowest level since the Cold War, soured by mutual espionage allegations and the murder of a former Russian intelligence official, Alexander Litvinenko, in London last year which led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it would temporarily ban the British Council in all regions of the country except Moscow from January 1. It said three regional cultural offices had not been legally registered.

"This is totally unacceptable... We wish this action to be desisted from immediately," Mr Brown told a parliamentary committee. He said Russia should not put the welfare of British Council staff at risk.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the British Council's presence in Russia was entirely in line with international law.

"For Russia to carry out its threat would therefore constitute a serious attack against the legitimate cultural agent of the British government; would show a disregard for the rule of law and would only damage Russia's reputation around the world," he said in the statement.

Mr Miliband said Britain was discussing the implications of Russia's threat with its EU partners and the Group of Seven rich countries.

A senior Russian Foreign Ministry source quoted by the Interfax news agency said British statements would only make the situation worse.

"Statements about intentions not to abide by the decision of the Russian authorities are provocative and can only make the situation worse," the agency quoted the source as saying.

The British Council operates as a not-for-profit charity run as a royal charter by the British government in 109 countries, teaching English, providing business contacts and administering academic tests for students who wish to study in Britain.

The murder suspect at the centre of the bitter diplomatic row said the organisation was a cover for espionage.

Britain wants Moscow to extradite former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy to stand trial for poisoning Mr Litvinenko with radioactive polonium. Moscow has refused the extradition request.

Mr Lugovoy denies murder.

"It's no secret that special services were actively working in the British Council," he said in Moscow at a congress of the nationalist LDPR party, which he is due to represent in parliament after winning a seat in a December 2 election.

He offered no evidence for the allegation. The British Council rejected the charge, saying it was purely a cultural relations organisation. "We do not work in politics or with any intelligence agencies," it said in a statement.

Both Mr Brown and Mr Miliband said Moscow's action would hurt many Russians who benefit from the British Council's work.

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