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Putin 'may have known of spy death'

Senior American officials believed Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin may well have known about the operation to murder dissident former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

Washington's senior diplomat in Europe challenged suggestions that the killing could have been the work of "rogue elements" in the Russian security forces, according to the latest documents posted on the WikiLeaks website.

Assistant secretary of state Daniel Fried said that Mr Putin's attention to detail meant that it would have been difficult for such an operation to be carried out without his knowledge.

Elsewhere, the cables describe Russia as a "virtual mafia state" in which the activities of the government and organised crime are indistinguishable, according to The Guardian which had advance access to the material.

Mr Fried's comments were made in a conversation in Paris with Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a senior adviser to then French president Jacques Chirac, on December 7 2006, two weeks after Mr Litvinenko's death in a London hospital.

Mr Gourdault-Montagne was said to have adopted a "defensive posture" over claims that the Russian government was involved. "He showed reluctance to see the Kremlin's hand in the Litvinenko poisoning, preferring to ascribe it to rogue elements," according to the US record of the conversation.

Mr Fried, however, strongly disagreed. "Fried commented that the short-term trend inside Russia was negative, noting increasing indications that the UK investigation into the murder of Litvinenko could well point to some sort of Russian involvement," the account noted.

"MGM (Mr Gourdault-Montagne) wondered aloud who might have given the order, but speculated the murder probably involved a settling of accounts between services rather than occurring under direct order from the Kremlin.

"(But) Fried, noting Putin's attention to detail, questioned whether rogue security elements could operate, in the UK no less, without Putin's knowledge.

"Describing the current atmosphere as strange, he described the Russians as increasingly self-confident, to the point of arrogance."

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