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Ex-spy's poisoning roils Putin's critics

A British Cabinet minister accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "attacks on individual liberty and on democracy" and said Sunday that relations with Moscow were strained after a former KGB agent was poisoned to death in London.

Peter Hain, the government's Northern Ireland secretary, said Putin's tenure had been clouded by incidents "including an extremely murky murder of the senior Russian journalist" Anna Politkovskaya.

They were the strongest comments leveled at Moscow since Alexander Litvinenko died Thursday from poisoning by the radioactive element polonium-210. In a deathbed statement, the Kremlin critic accused Putin of ordering his poisoning. Putin has denied involvement.

"His success in binding what is a disintegrating nation together with an economy that was collapsing into Mafioso style chaos, his success in that must be balanced against the fact there have been huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy," Hain said of Putin. "And it's important that he retakes the democratic road in my view," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

He agreed when asked if relations with Moscow were at a "tricky stage."

British officials have so far avoided blaming Moscow for Litvinenko's death, and Hain did not comment directly on the case.

But opposition leaders demanded Sunday that the government explain what it knows about the poisoning and, in particular, how the deadly nuclear material used to poison Litvinenko, 43, found its way into Britain.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment on Hain's remarks.