Image: Luke Harding of the Guardian
Christian Jungeblodt  /  AP
The Guardian newspaper's Moscow correspondent Luke Harding, shown in a 2005 file photo.
updated 2/7/2011 6:54:17 PM ET 2011-02-07T23:54:17

Russia has expelled a British journalist who wrote about allegations the country under Vladimir Putin has become a "virtual mafia state," reports the Guardian newspaper of London.

Luke Harding, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, is believed to be the first British staff journalist removed from the country since the end of the cold war, the Guardian said.

Harding wrote about Wikileaks cables for the newspaper and included the allegations about the Russia, the Guardian said.

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Russia refused to let Harding in when he flew back to Moscow over the weekend after spending two months in London on the Wikileaks reporting, the paper said.

Harding's passport was checked on his arrival, the Guardian said. After 45 minutes in an airport cell, Harding was sent back to the United Kingdom on the first available plane, it said.

His visa was annulled and his passport was returned to him on the plane, the paper said.

All Harding was told by airport security official working for the Federal Border Service was, "For you Russia is closed," the Guardian said.

British government authorities have not been able to learn any details, the paper said.

"This is clearly a very troubling development with serious implications for press freedom, and it is worrying that the Russian government should now kick out reporters of whom they disapprove," said Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor-in-chief. "Russia's treatment of journalists — both domestic and foreign — is a cause of great concern. We are attempting to establish further details, and are in contact with the Foreign Office."

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The Guardian said the last prominent British journalist expelled by Russia was Angus Roxburgh, kicked out in 1989 after then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked 11 Russian spies to leave London. Roxburgh returned a few months later after the fall of communism while working for the BBC.

Harding was briefly detained in April 2010 in Ingushetia after a visit to the troubled the Caucasus region, the Guardian said. In May he interviewed the Dagestani father of Mariam Sharipova, a suicide bomber who killed 26 people on the Moscow Metro in March 2010.

In December, a Harding article about WikiLeaks reported that Putin was likely to have known about the planned assassination of former spy Alexander Litvinenko because of the Russian prime minister's "attention to detail," the paper said.

Harding also co-authored a book, "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy."

"I didn't go out to Russia with any particular agenda and I'm sad to leave under these circumstances," the Guardian quoted Harding as saying. "But I do not think journalists can accept self-censorship."

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