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Experts cast doubt today on claims that British diplomats used a fake rock to spy in Moscow as the Foreign Office was forced to issue a denial of any improper conduct.
Commentators on Russian affairs suggested the allegations were deliberately timed to coincide with a clampdown on the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia.
Their views were expressed after Russian state television broadcast video footage of what it claims are British diplomats spying in Moscow.
In the programme, people claiming to be Russian intelligence officers say they have intercepted a high-tech spying operation, the BBC reported.
The officers allege British agents planted a transmitter in an imitation rock on a Moscow street. British embassy officials then walked past downloading data from the "rock's" transmitter.
The programme said four officials from the British embassy and one Russian citizen, allegedly recruited by the British secret service, downloaded classified data from the rock's transmitter onto palm-top computers, the BBC reported.
The Russian citizen was later arrested, it reported.
Helen Szamuely, a commentator on Russian affairs, said
she believed the story was being broadcast in order to put pressure on Russian
president Vladimir Putin.
It would be up to him whether to pass legislation aimed at curtailing the activities of Russian NGOs, she said.
"One has to be quite careful here. It might just be true, but it sounds rather unrealistic to have a business of a rock and a transmitter in the rock. I would have thought that these things could be done a lot more securely," she said.
Professor Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, said the allegations were "incredible".
"There is no doubt about it, that the British, and Americans and others, have been active in the spying field, but this is extraordinary."
He said the question was why the story should break now.
He suggested it could be interpreted as a means of protesting to the US over its policy of backing NGOs in an attempt to achieve change.
"The fact is that, in attacking Britain, the British are just simply becoming associated as a support agency for the the US. It is like they are getting at Britain purely and simply as a way of warning the US."
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