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UK judge accuses key Litvinenko slaying suspect of manipulation after he refuses to testify

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LONDON — A British judge investigating the death of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko accused a key suspect Monday of manipulating the inquiry by agreeing to testify, then refusing at the last minute.

Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun had been due to appear at judge Robert Owen's inquiry by video link from Russia.

But inquiry lawyer Robin Tam said that Kovtun now claimed to be bound by obligations of confidentiality to an ongoing Russian investigation.

Owen said Kovtun's last-minute change of stance gave rise to "the gravest suspicion that an attempt is being made to manipulate the situation." He has previously warned Kovtun not to try to delay the inquiry, which began in January — more than eight years after Litvinenko's death.

The KGB officer-turned-Kremlin critic died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 at a London hotel. On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination, and British authorities have also alleged that the Russian state was involved — an accusation Moscow denies.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 file photo, Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun speaks during a press conference at Interfax headquarters in Moscow, Russia. A prime suspect in the killing of Alexander Litvinenko says he won't testify as planned at an inquiry into the former Russian spy's death, leading the judge in charge to accuse him of trying to manipulate proceedings. Inquiry counsel Robin Tam says Dmitry Kovtun claims to be bound by obligations of confidentiality to an ongoing Russian investigation. He had been due to testify by video link from Russia Monday, July 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
FILE - In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 file photo, Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun speaks during a press conference at Interfax headquarters in Moscow, Russia. A prime suspect in the killing of Alexander Litvinenko says he won't testify as planned at an inquiry into the former Russian spy's death, leading the judge in charge to accuse him of trying to manipulate proceedings. Inquiry counsel Robin Tam says Dmitry Kovtun claims to be bound by obligations of confidentiality to an ongoing Russian investigation. He had been due to testify by video link from Russia Monday, July 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

British police have accused Kovtun and another Russian man, Andrei Lugovoi, of carrying out the killing. Both deny involvement, and Russia refuses to extradite them.

Lugovoi has declined to cooperate with the British probe, but Kovtun said in March that he was willing to give evidence.

He has suggested that Litvinenko may have poisoned himself accidentally while handling radioactive material.

Owen gave Kovtun until Tuesday morning to begin his testimony. Otherwise, the inquiry will wrap up without him.

Ben Emmerson, lawyer for Litvinenko's widow Marina, said he believed there was little chance Kovtun would give evidence.

"It appears the proceedings are being manipulated in a coordinated way between Mr. Kovtun — the murderer — and the Russian state which sent him to commit the murder," Emmerson said.

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 file photo, Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun speaks during a press conference at Interfax headquarters in Moscow, Russia. A prime suspect in the killing of Alexander Litvinenko says he won't testify as planned at an inquiry into the former Russian spy's death, leading the judge in charge to accuse him of trying to manipulate proceedings. Inquiry counsel Robin Tam says Dmitry Kovtun claims to be bound by obligations of confidentiality to an ongoing Russian investigation. He had been due to testify by video link from Russia Monday, July 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
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