Blair has vowed to pursue justice
An ex-KGB agent accused by the British authorities of murdering former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko dismissed the case against him as politically motivated yesterday.
Pressure was building on Russia to hand over Moscow-based Andrei Lugovoy to face trial in the UK as Prime Minister Tony Blair led the growing clamour in Britain.
Lugovoy is wanted for the poisoning of Mr Litvinenko, who died from a dose of radioactive element polonium 210 last November.
The decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges came almost exactly six months after Mr Litvinenko died.
But Lugovoy, who met Mr Litvinenko in London on the day he fell ill, issued an emphatic denial yesterday via the Russian media: "I consider this decision to be political.
"I did not kill Litvinenko, I have no relation to his death and I can only express well-founded distrust for the so-called basis of proof collected by British judicial officials." Mr Litvinenko's widow Marina welcomed the British move.
Mr Blair's spokesman said the case was being taken very seriously and stressed that the UK would "not in any way shy away" from trying to ensure justice prevailed.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she expected "full co-operation" and Russian ambassador Yury Fedotov was summoned to the Foreign Office. Russia signed up to the European Convention on Extradition in 2001, but Russia's Prosecutor General Office said Lugovoy would not be extradited because any charge against him could be dealt with on home soil.
Relations between Moscow and London have been strained since Britain refused to send exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky back to the Russian authorities.
The death of Mr Litvinenko sparked a major murder investigation by the Met's counter terrorism department. Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald QC said the murder was an "extraordinarily grave crime".
He said Mr Litvinenko had died of acute radiation injury after ingesting a lethal dose of polonium. "I have concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoy with the murder of Mr Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning.
"I have further concluded that a prosecution of this case would clearly be in the public interest." Sir Ken said he had instructed CPS lawyers to take immediate steps to seek Lugovoy's extradition so he could be "brought swiftly before a court in London".
Mr Litvinenko was a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin regime and had been granted political asylum and citizenship in the UK. On his death bed, he accused Mr Putin of being responsible for his death.
He said: "You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people."