x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UK admits to spying on Russia with a fake rock

Russia accused British diplomats in January 2006 of using the bizarre scheme to receive and transmit information, a charge London had until now denied.

LONDON // A former British official has admitted for the first time that Britain was responsible for a James Bond-style spy plot involving a fake rock in Moscow that contained electronic equipment.

Russia accused British diplomats in January 2006 of using the bizarre scheme to receive and transmit information, a charge London had until now denied.

Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff to Tony Blair, then prime minister at the time, told the BBC that Russia had used the incident to bring in a law to crack down on foreign non-governmental organisations.

"There's not much you can say. The spy rock was embarrassing," Mr Powell said in a programme to be broadcast later Thursday on the BBC.

"They had us bang to rights.

"Clearly they had known about it for some time and had been saving it up for a political purpose."

The incident emerged when Russian television broadcast footage in January 2006 of what it said was a British agent picking up a fake rock in a Moscow street.

It showed electronic equipment inside the rock and said it had been used by British diplomats to receive and transmit information.

Russia then alleged that Britain was making covert payments to foreign NGOs.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president at the time, introduced a law shortly afterwards restricting all foreign funding to NGOs.

There was no immediate reaction from Moscow to Mr Powell's comments.

Britain and Russia have had frosty relations for years, particularly over the poisoning with radioactive polonium in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko later in 2006 in London.