Russians: British Spied Using Fake Rock
Jan 23 2:55 PM US/Eastern

Associated Press Writer


Russia's main intelligence agency on Monday accused four British diplomats of spying _ using electronic equipment hidden inside a fake rock in a park _ as well as funneling funds to non-governmental organizations.

The announcement came a day after state television channel Rossiya broadcast footage purportedly showing four British Embassy staff using electronic equipment concealed in the rock in Moscow to receive intelligence from Russian agents.

A prominent rights activist warned the accusations could be used as a pretext to crack down on Western-funded groups that are critical of the Kremlin.

Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said the situation would be resolved "at a political level," the RIA-Novosti news agency reported, an apparent indication that the Russian government could expel the diplomats.

The intelligence agency also said a Russian citizen who allegedly had contacts with British agents had been detained and confessed to espionage, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

Officials at the British Embassy in Moscow and Foreign Office in London declined to comment on the espionage accusations. Prime Minister Tony Blair said at a news conference that he had only heard about the allegations in media reports and had no further comment.

In addition to a post-Cold War chill in Russian-British relations, the announcement reflected a toughening Russian attitude toward NGOs. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin signed a law severely restricting NGOs' financing and activities.

Moscow has been highly suspicious of groups promoting human rights and democracy since opposition leaders came to power in recent uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Russian officials have accused Western nations of encouraging regime change in the regions by financing NGOs.

Rossiya said the diplomats had downloaded information onto handheld computers from the electronic gadget hidden in the rock, a process that worked at a distance of up to 65 feet and took only one or two seconds.

Among the diplomats named in the television broadcast were Marc Doe and Paul Crompton. Both are listed in British Embassy directories provided to the media as working in the embassy's political section.

Interfax identified the two others as Andrew Fleming and Christopher Pirt, but they weren't in the directories.

Rossiya also showed copies of documents allegedly showing that Britain had transferred money to non-governmental organizations working in Russia, including one that purportedly authorized a transfer of $41,000 in October 2004 to the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading rights group that has been a persistent critic of Putin.

Interfax also reported that 12 NGOs had received funds under Doe's signature.

"This is the first time we literally caught them red-handed in the process of contacting their agents here and received evidence that they finance a number of non-governmental organizations," the ITAR- Tass news agency quoted Ignatchenko as saying.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and a Soviet-era dissident, described the accusations as part of a smear campaign against NGOs critical of the Kremlin.

"They are preparing public opinion for a government move to close us down, which they can now do under the new law," Alexeyeva told The Associated Press. "This will not stop our activities, though. I managed to keep on working in Soviet times."

The Peace Corps pulled out of Russia in 2003 amid spying allegations.

In a statement released following the Sunday broadcast, Britain's Foreign Office rejected allegations of improper dealings with Russian NGOs, saying London gave assistance openly to support the development of healthy civil society in Russia.

But Gennady Gudkov, a retired security service officer and a member of the security committee of the lower house of parliament, warned that foreign states were using non-profit groups "for their own goals."

"I regret that British special services have discredited the very idea of non-governmental organizations," he told AP.

In 1996, Russia and Britain engaged in a spying dispute launched by Moscow, each expelling four diplomats.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, predicted the spy scandal would increase tensions between Moscow and the West as Russia chairs the Group of Eight this year.

"This will provoke a very negative commentary in the West. It will only worsen the picture since Russia already started its G8 presidency on a very inauspicious note," Lukyanov told AP, alluding to its cutoff of gas to Ukraine over the New Year holiday, which resulted in brief shortages for other European countries as well.