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Russia, Britain embroiled in dispute over British Council offices
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2008-01-16 14:27
Russia on Monday called the reopening of British Council offices in this country a "deliberate provocation" and vowed to take new measures against the British cultural body while Britain stood firm on the issue that has further soured relations between the two countries.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned British Ambassador Anthony Brenton.

"The British ambassador was told that Russia considers such actions as a deliberate provocation aimed at increasing tensions in Russian-British relations," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Moscow in December ordered the closure of two regional offices of the British Council in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg from the start of the new year, citing illegal status and tax problems. Britain said Russia had politicized the issue.

The British Council is an organization that promotes cultural relations and arranges educational exchanges with other countries.

The two British Council offices reopened on Monday after a holiday break.

"Given that our calls were not heeded, Russia has to take administrative and legal measures in line with Russian laws and world practices," the ministry said.

These will include moves to recover what Moscow said was tax arrears, restrictions on entry visas issued to British consular officials and denial of accreditation extensions for current employees.

The ministry said the standoff "may have the most negative implications for Russian-British relations" and called on Britain to "stop ignoring obvious facts."

The British envoy defended the council, saying it "is working entirely legally and it will continue, therefore, to work."

"Any Russian action against it would be a breach of international law," Brenton told reporters after meeting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov.

Meanwhile, Brenton said, "we need to be quite careful to prevent this situation from infecting all the other pieces of business which we need to work on together."

British cultural officials have said Russia's decision to shut down the British Council offices was politically charged.

Moscow denied the claim. "We believe that the blame for this situation rests entirely with London and we do not in any way link this situation with other aspects of bilateral relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

Kamynin said Russia hopes Britain will "refrain from fanning further tensions in bilateral relations."

Ties between Moscow and London have been bruised by the dispute over the poisoning case of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in July due to Russia's refusal to extradite a main suspect in the case, Andrei Lugovoi, who was accused of murdering Litvinenko. Russia also expelled four British diplomats.

Brenton was quoted by Interfax as saying that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had explained that Russia's reaction to the British Council stems from the controversy over the Litvinenko case.

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