Russia’s intelligence service on Monday accused four British diplomats of involvement in a spy ring in which agents allegedly passed secrets through a high-tech communications system hidden in an innocent-looking stone in a Moscow park.
The British government said it was ”concerned” by the report and denied any wrongdoing.
”Four British diplomats are suspected. I am not ready to give their names yet, but this is all being investigated,” a Federal Security Service (FSB) spokesperson told Agence France-Presse.
The alleged spying ring was uncovered late last year, according to a documentary on state-run Rossiya television late on Sunday, which was made in cooperation with the FSB.
In a twist worthy of the most elaborate espionage novel, Russian counter-intelligence claimed to have discovered an electronic communications point disguised in a stone left in a small park on the outskirts of Moscow.
The FSB said one of the diplomats, identified as a 30-year-old archivist at the British embassy, was seen last autumn using the stone as a high-tech version of the traditional letter-box or dead drop in which agents can deliver or retrieve information.
”At first we thought this was a normal, typical secret drop-off point camouflaged under a stone. However, later when our specialists carried out their investigation it became clear that the stone contained an electronic device,” an FSB officer told Rossiya television.
The stone allegedly contained equipment able both to receive and transmit information, the officer said. ”This was absolutely new spy technology.”
Rossiya television said that Russian informants would leave or retrieve information by passing near the stone and transmitting from a pocket personal computer.
Days later, a British diplomat would allegedly visit the stone and access the same system.
One Russian citizen connected to the alleged ring had been arrested, Rossiya said.
According to Rossiya, one of the British diplomats was ”linked to several Russian non-governmental organisations”.
NGOs and charities operating in Russia with foreign backing have come under growing pressure from the authorities amid accusations that they are covers for spies. A controversial new law has extended the authorities’ control over NGOs.
The Rossiya documentary claimed that one of the best known human rights advocacy groups in Russia, the Moscow Helsinki Group, had received a British government funding grant signed by a member of the alleged spy ring.
Moscow Helsinki head Lyudmila Alekseyeva said this was a ”provocation” aimed at whipping up opposition to the work of NGOs, seen by liberal observers as one of the only spheres of Russian political and public life still not controlled by the Kremlin.
Alekseyeva said that the document showing one of the alleged diplomat-spies’ signatures ”was a fake.” The document displayed on television had been written in Russian, while all communication between her organisation and British donors were in English, she said.
In London, a spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: ”We are concerned and surprised at these allegations. We reject any allegation of improper conduct in our dealing with Russian NGOs.
”It is well known that the UK government has financially supported projects implemented by Russian NGOs in the field of human rights and civil society.
”All our assistance is given openly and aims to support the development of a healthy civil society in Russia.” – AFP