LONDON: The Moscow correspondent of The Guardian has been expelled from Russia in what is believed to be the first removal of a British staff journalist from the country since the end of the Cold War.
Luke Harding's forced departure comes after the newspaper's coverage of the WikiLeaks cables, where he reported on allegations that Russia under Vladimir Putin had become a ''virtual Mafia state''.
The journalist flew back to Moscow at the weekend after a two-month stint reporting on the contents of the leaked US diplomatic cables from London, but was refused entry when his passport was checked on his arrival.
After spending 45 minutes in an airport cell, he was sent back to Britain - with his visa annulled and his passport returned to him only after he had taken his seat. Harding was given no specific reason for the decision.
The tightly controlled nature of Russian politics means the expulsion is likely to have been ordered at a very senior level, but the British government has so far been unable to find out any more details.
Britain's Foreign Minister, William Hague, has contacted his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to establish what had happened. It is understood that Mr Lavrov had no explanation and promised only to look into the matter.
Harding's expulsion follows several incidents of harassment amid official disapproval of his coverage. He was briefly detained in April in Ingushetia after a visit to the troubled Caucasus region. In May he interviewed the Dagestani father of Mariam Sharipova, a suicide bomber who killed 26 people on the Moscow Metro in March last year.
Although Western reporters are not subject to anything like the dangers of some of their Russian counterparts, several of whom have been murdered for delving too deeply into the corruption and Mafia nexus at the heart of the state, English-speaking correspondents are careful about what and how they report.
Sensitive areas include references to the personal wealth allegedly built up by Mr Putin, any discussion about corruption linked to senior government individuals, or any reporting that implies the Kremlin had any knowledge of the plot to kill the former spy Alexander Litvinenko.
In December The Guardian published an article by Harding which reported that Mr Putin was likely to have known about the planned assassination in the opinion of Washington's top diplomat in Europe because of the Russian Prime Minister's ''attention to detail''.
Guardian News & Media