January 26, 2006

Russia Marvels at High-tech British

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A fake stone alleged to have been used by British spies to communicate with Moscow agents was a "wonder" of technology that cost tens of millions of pounds (dollars), Russia's FSB security service said on Thursday.

FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko praised the high-tech spy stone, which would look at home in a James Bond film, and listed its extraordinary qualities.

The stone was revealed by the FSB on Sunday in a television program that apparently showed four British spies using it as a dead letter drop.

"This is like space technology in its qualities. You could throw this stone from the 9th floor, it can survive a long period in water, it has several different kinds of defense," Ignatchenko said in televised comments.

"According to our experts' assessments, this device costs several tens of millions of pounds. You could only create this technological wonder in laboratory conditions."

Britain has not admitted the Russian charges, and President Vladimir Putin has said he is undecided on whether to expel the group - as is traditional for diplomats caught in espionage.

Ignatchenko said the stone was one of two used to secretly store data that was detected by the Russians, and that the other one had been removed by the British before the FSB had decided what to do with it.

Although some observers giggled about the spat, especially scenes that apparently showed a British spy kicking the stone to try to make it work, human rights groups say it is serious.

The FSB accused the British not only of spying but also of funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs), although it was unclear how the two charges were connected.

The suggestions were damaging for NGOs just days after the final approval of tough new curbs on them, which will give security services and tax authorities broad oversight over activists' activities.

Putin had backed the law despite the curbs being criticized in the West, and on Wednesday he said the spy spat showed the law was necessary and would stop spies infiltrating Russian society in future.