updated 7/11/2008 11:37:53 AM ET 2008-07-11T15:37:53

Russia has accused the British Embassy’s top trade official in Moscow of espionage, the British Foreign Office confirmed Friday.

The accusation appears likely to worsen Russian-British relations, already strained in part by the continuing fight for control at the TNK-BP oil producer, which is jointly owned by the British company and a group of Russian billionaires.

The British Foreign Office said the accused diplomat was acting head of U.K. Trade and Investment at the embassy and confirmed his name was Chris Bowers.

The espionage accusation was first made Thursday in a report carried by the Interfax news agency, which cited a source in Russia’s secret services as saying Bowers was believed to be a senior British intelligence officer.

The source also accused Bowers of working for the secret services “under the cover of a BBC correspondent in Tashkent,” Uzbekistan, in the 1990s, Interfax reported.

Paul Rasmussen, a spokesman for the BBC, confirmed that Bowers worked as a stringer for the British news organization in Tashkent in the 1990s. Rasmussen declined any further comment.

The Federal Security Service and Foreign Ministry both refused to comment on the accusations.

Britain’s former top trade official, Andrew Levi, was one of four British Embassy officials expelled from Moscow last summer.

Retaliation
The expulsions were retaliation for Britain’s expulsion of four Russian diplomats after Russia refused to hand over the main suspect in the 2006 poisoning death of Kremlin critic and former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Thursday’s accusation against Bowers came on the heels of a report Monday on BBC’s Newsnight program, in which an unnamed British intelligence official suggested Russian government involvement in Litvinenko’s murder.

Russian officials were angry that the BBC aired the report on the day Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the first time at the G-8 summit in Japan

Sergei Prikhodko, a Medvedev adviser, suggested the timing was not coincidental.

Brown, Medvedev meet
During their talks in Japan, Brown brought up the visa troubles of foreign staff at TNK-BP, his spokesman said at the time. Medvedev told him the government has no part in the dispute between BP and the Russian shareholders, according to Prikhodko.

Russia agreed to issue work permits to 49 foreign employees of TNK-BP, but more than 30 foreigners left without permits will have to leave Russia by the end of the month when their visas expire.

In recent months the joint venture has been beset by a series of problems, which oil industry experts say may be part of a campaign for control by the Russian shareholders.

The problems range from a tax investigation to labor inspections, and in March the Federal Security Service filed industrial espionage charges against TNK-BP employee Ilya Zaslavsky, who has U.S. and Russian citizenship.

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