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Putin 'Probably' Approved Plan To Kill Ex-Russian Spy, British Report Says

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An official investigation into the murder in London of a former Russian spy is out today, and puts the blame squarely on the Russian government. The British report says President Vladimir Putin likely personally approved the assassination of former spy Alexander Litvinenko. This statement was read out by his friend after his death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protests from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.

MONTAGNE: The findings are explosive, and will deepen the tensions between the U.K. and Russia. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now to discuss this. Good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So tell us more about the Litvinenko case.

FADEL: Well, Litvinenko was a former Russian spy who sought asylum in Britain. And in Britain, he publicly denounced the Kremlin and became a strong critic of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. He was also believed to be consulting with Britain's MI6 spy agency. And in 2006, he was poisoned in a swanky hotel in the heart of London with a cup of green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. The culprits named in today's report as his assassins are two Russian men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. Litvinenko's widow said the words her husband spoke on his deathbed, the words you just heard accusing Putin of his murder, have finally been proven.

MONTAGNE: And so what exactly did the inquiry find?

FADEL: Judge Robert Owen, who's a retired British judge and conducted the inquiry, found that Litvinenko was definitely poisoned by a cup of polonium-210-laced tea. He also says there's a strong possibility that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, probably approved the assassination himself. And he says he believes this because the two Russian men, Lugovoi and Kovtun, who he concludes carried out the assassinations, used polonium-210. And it was manufactured in a nuclear reactor, and only a state body can provide that, the Russian state. And so that's the conclusion of the inquiry.

MONTAGNE: OK, the results of this public investigation, they - it blames the Russian state, it implicates the Russian president. I mean, big stuff. What happens now between the two countries?

FADEL: Well, just to show how seriously Britain is taking this, Theresa May, the - Britain's Home Secretary, gave a statement on the findings to the House of Commons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOME SECRETARY THERESA MAY: It goes without saying that this was a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and of civilized behavior.

FADEL: She reiterated the demands for extradition of both Lugovoi and Kovtun. She says the Treasury has decided on an asset freeze for the two men implicated in Litvinenko's death. She says that the U.K. is deeply disturbed by Putin's likely involvement, but says the U.K. will continue to guardedly engage with Russia over mutual interests like Syria. She's calling on Russia to engage responsibly with the world.

MONTAGNE: So, Leila, how will this affect relations between Russia and Britain?

FADEL: Well, of course it's already deepened tensions. Russia has said this inquiry is politicized, biased, opaque. It quoted an official in its state news agency saying that this will definitely have repercussions for the U.K.-Russian relationship. But Britain's walking a tight route - rope and is under a lot of pressure to respond. Litvinenko's widow, Marina, has said - has called for targeted sanctions on Russian officials.

MONTAGNE: All right, NPR's Leila Fadel speaking to us from London. Thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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