The Foreign Office said yesterday it was seeking an explanation from Moscow over why a British businessman has been thrown out of Russia for "activities incompatible with his status" - a Cold War-era term used to denote spying.
It is the second time Nigel Shakespear, a former assistant military attache with the British embassy, has felt the wrath of the Moscow authorities, as he was among eight British diplomats and three journalists who were thrown out in May 1989 after the same number of Russian diplomats and media workers were ordered out of Britain.
The move is further evidence of Russia's erratic relations with the West, which have veered from warm enthusiasm to cool uncertainty in the last few months, and have given rise to fears that the new Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, has hard-line tendencies. Mr Shakespear, 46, was ordered aboard a flight to London by Russian officials after flying into Sheremetevo airport from a 10-day business trip to Kazakhstan. He had been working in Moscow for Gorandel Trading, which offers security and risk management.
Although the officials supplied him with no explanation for their decision at the time - it happened on 15 February, but details only emerged yesterday - the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the security services (the heirs to the KGB) had found "negative elements in his activities" which were "not compatible" with his status as a businessman.
"He was not expelled. His visa was terminated," said Alexander Golitsin, a senior Foreign Ministry official. He suggested spying might be "too strong" a word for the allegations against Mr Shakespear, yet hinted that the move was related to the Briton's former job as a diplomat. The affair would not affect the "friendly relations" between Russia and the United Kingdom, he added.
Mr Shakespear, speaking from north London, rejected any suggestion that he had been a spy: "I categorically deny it. My response is that the charge is totally unjustified." He refused to speculate over why he had been expelled, saying that he had no idea and that it was "totally unfair".
The British embassy in Moscow said that it had not been told why Mr Shakespear was forced to leave the country, and was seeking clarification. But the Foreign Office has made clear that it regards the manner in which he was abruptly sent home as unacceptable.
He had no opportunity to contact diplomats or his family before being ushered on to a plane. "We shall be raising his treatment - and particularly his treatment at the airport - with the Russians," said James Pavel, an embassy spokesman.
Mr Shakespear began travelling to Russia in 1992. Thirteen months ago he moved to Moscow permanently, with his wife, Rosalind and child, Clara.
Until January, he worked with accountants Price Waterhouse, before leaving to work for Gorandel, believed to be a British-Russian joint venture. Robin Hall, a former colleague at Price Waterhouse, said: "As far as I know, he was completely unaware the Russian authorities had him down as a spy."
A steady trickle of expulsions for alleged spying have continued. Last July Alexander Malikov, a Russian journalist, left Britain accused of spying.