updated 11/26/2006 4:47:14 PM ET 2006-11-26T21:47:14

A British Cabinet minister accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “attacks on individual liberty and on democracy” and said Sunday that relations with Moscow were strained after a former KGB agent was poisoned to death in London.

Peter Hain, the government’s Northern Ireland Secretary, said Putin’s tenure had been clouded by incidents “including an extremely murky murder of the senior Russian journalist” Anna Politkovskaya.

They were the strongest comments leveled at Moscow since Alexander Litvinenko died Thursday from poisoning by the radioactive element polonium-210. In a dramatic statement dictated from his hospital bed and read outside the hospital after his death, the Kremlin critic accused the “barbaric and ruthless” Putin of ordering his poisoning.

“His success in binding what is a disintegrating nation together with an economy that was collapsing into Mafioso style chaos, his success in that must be balanced against the fact there have been huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy,” Hain said of Putin. “And it’s important that he retakes the democratic road in my view,” he told British Broadcasting Corp. He agreed when asked if relations with Moscow were at a “tricky stage.”

British officials have so far avoided blaming Moscow for Litvinenko’s death and Hain did not comment directly on the case.

But opposition leaders demanded Sunday that the government explain what it knows about the poisoning and, in particular, how the deadly nuclear material used to poison the 43-year-old Litvinenko found its way into Britain.

Litvinenko told police he believed he was poisoned Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of Politkovskaya, another critic of Putin’s government. The ex-spy was moved to intensive care last week after his hair fell out, his throat became swollen, and his immune and nervous systems suffered severe damage.

London police investigating ‘suspicious death’
London’s Metropolitan Police said they were investigating a “suspicious death,” rather than a murder. They have not ruled out the possibility that Litvinenko may have poisoned himself.

Litvinenko’s friends and allies in London’s Russian emigre community blamed Putin, who has denied any involvement and called the death a tragedy.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment Sunday on Hain’s remarks.

Home Secretary John Reid, Britain’s top law-and-order official, refused to speculate about who might have killed Litvinenko. “I don’t think it’s for me as a politician to be making judgments that a policeman should make,” he told Scotland’s Radio Clyde.

The main opposition Conservative Party demanded the government make a statement in the House of Commons on Monday outlining what it knew about the case and how polonium-210 — a rare radioactive element usually produced in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — got into Britain.

Video: Searching for clues in poison plot “It is essential that other dissidents living in Britain are reassured about their safety and there are also questions about how polonium-210 came to be used in Britain,” said David Davis, the Conservative law-and-order spokesman.

Relations between Russia and Britain have remained cool since the end of the Cold War. London has infuriated Moscow by offering refuge to self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a Kremlin critic wanted in Russia on money-laundering charges, and Akhmed Zakayev, a representative of late Chechen rebel chief Aslan Maskhadov.

In January, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, accused four British diplomats of spying, showing on state-run television sophisticated communications equipment concealed in a fake rock, which it said the Britons hid in a Moscow park to use to contact Russian agents.

Poison risk to others downplayed
The ex-spy’s death sparked a huge public health alert, with authorities preparing to test scores of people who may have come into contact with Litvinenko for traces of radiation.

“There is a lot of radioactivity involved,” the Health Protection Agency’s director of radiation, chemicals and environmental hazards, Roger Cox, told Sky News television.

But the agency insisted the risk to others was low because polonium-210 can only contaminate if it is ingested, inhaled or taken in through a wound.

Litvinenko’s body was released to a coroner late Saturday, and government pathologists were awaiting advice on whether it was safe to perform an autopsy.

Former KGB spy discounts Putin link
On Sunday, Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB spy who is a member of the Russian parliament, said Putin’s government played no part in the death.

“I completely rule out the possibility of that being done on official orders from anyone in the authorities,” Lebedev told Sky News.

The Sunday Times reported that as he lay dying, Litvinenko named an alleged Russian agent he feared had been sent to hunt him down. Litvinenko claimed the Russian agent was not directly involved in his poisoning but had been sent to monitor his activities, the newspaper said.

Police said they could not immediately confirm whether officers would seek to interview the alleged Russian agent. The Foreign Office said it has asked Moscow for help with the investigation.

Litvinenko worked for the KGB and its successor, the FSB. In 1998, he publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill Berezovsky and spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office. He was later acquitted and in 2000 sought asylum in Britain.

Litvinenko spoke to academics James Heartfield and Julia Svetlichnaja from the University of Westminster in three interviews in April and May. The Daily Telegraph published a syndicated version of the interviews Saturday.

Problem principle’
Litvinenko was recruited into the Soviet-era KGB and also worked for the FSB. He was later promoted to a special counterterrorism and organized crime unit. After the fall of communism, he said his directive was to recruit powerful businessmen who could stimulate an economic boom, and to hire assassins.

"Our department worked on the so-called problem principle — the government had a problem and we had simply to deal with it," Litvinenko said in interviews.

By 1997, the department carried out "extralegal executions of unsuitable businessmen, politicians and other public figures," he said.

In an interview recorded in late 2005 with British television journalist John Coates, excerpts of which were broadcast on Britain's Sky television Saturday, Litvinenko said he raised concerns in 1997 with Putin — then head of the FSB.

Litvinenko publicly accused his superiors in 1998 of ordering him to kill Berezovsky, a Russian tycoon living in exile in London. He spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office. Litvinenko was later acquitted and moved to Britain, which granted him asylum in 2000. He recently became a British citizen.

The Kremlin had no immediate comment Saturday on the interviews.

Moscow's government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta pointed suspicion Saturday at London's community of Russian exiles. Litvinenko "made his choice and drank his poison ... when he betrayed those he worked for," the newspaper said.

The newspaper speculated that Berezovsky was involved, aiming either to use the death to discredit Putin's government or settle a business dispute. A presenter on Russia's state-run Channel One television channel said there was "a theory (that) Litvinenko poisoned himself."

Source of polonium debated
Polonium-210 can be found in Russia, which has several nuclear research facilities and a major space program, but Kremlin intelligence agents would be unlikely to use it since the origin could be traced, said Alexander Pikayev, a senior analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for Global Economy and International Relations.

Vladimir Slivyak, a nuclear expert and co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense, said the material could have been acquired on the black market.

Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian exile in Israel, suggested in a statement that Litvinenko's death was connected to information he had linking the Kremlin to the Yukos affair.

"Alexander had information on crimes committed with the Russian government's direct participation," Nevzlin said. "He only recently gave me and my attorneys documents that shed light on most significant aspects of the Yukos affair."

Nevzlin said he relayed the documents to British investigators.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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