Poison suspected in ex-KGB agent's illness

Exiled Russian was probing reporter's killing

November 20, 2006|By New York Times News Service

LONDON --British police said yesterday that they were investigating the suspected poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Russian former KGB operative living in exile in Britain who had been inquiring into the killing of a journalist in Moscow last month.

Russian authorities had no immediate comment on suggestions in news reports that the Russian secret service had poisoned Litvinenko, who is hospitalized and seriously ill, because he had criticized former colleagues and President Vladimir V. Putin.

Litvinenko is portrayed by fellow exiles as a prominent opponent of the Kremlin, and he had told them he was looking into the killing Oct. 7 of Anna Politkovskaya, who had made her name as a critic of the government's policies in Chechnya and who was gunned down at her apartment building.

Details from the police and news reports had some of the hallmarks of a spy thriller in the Cold War vein of John le Carre.

The Sunday Times of London said that the former agent had met Nov. 1 with an Italian contact identified only as "Mario" in a central London sushi bar.

According to the Associated Press, British news outlets identified the contact as Mario Scaramella, an Italian academic who helped investigate KGB activity in Italy during the Cold War.

Last week, Litvinenko told reporters that he began to feel sick within hours of the meeting with the contact.

"I ordered lunch but he ate nothing," Litvinenko said, according to The Sunday Times, which apparently interviewed him after he began to feel ill but before his condition deteriorated. "He appeared to be very nervous. He handed me a four-page document, which he said he wanted me to read right away."

"It contained a list of people, including FSB officer, who were purported to be connected with the journalist's murder," he said. The FSB, or Federal Security Service, is the successor to the KGB.

"They probably thought I would be dead from heart failure by the third day," Litvinenko told The Sunday Times. "I do feel very bad. I've never felt like this before - like my life is hanging on the ropes."

In a telephone interview, Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon who has had a long association with Litvinenko - dating to the late 1990s when, he and Litvinenko contended at the time, Litvinenko had balked at orders to assassinate Berzovsky - said he had visited Litvinenko in the hospital and found him "damaged terribly."

Berezovsky said Litvinenko had been granted British citizenship, so the poisoning was "a terror attack against a British citizen in Britain." The incident, he pointed out, could create a problem for Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has sought to cultivate close ties with Putin.

A police spokeswoman, speaking on the condition of anonymity under police rules, said specialist police officers were "investigating a suspicious poisoning." She described Litvinenko's condition as "serious but stable."

Glenn Edwards, operations manager at Itsu restaurant, where the lunch took place, told the AP that detectives had arrived at the restaurant Saturday asking for closed-circuit television footage.

Dr. John Henry, a clinical toxicologist who has been treating Litvinenko, told the BBC: "He's got a prospect of recovering. He's a got a prospect of dying."

Henry, who in 2004 treated President Viktor A. Yushchenko of Ukraine, who was poisoned with dioxin, identified the suspected poison in the Litvinenko case as thallium, a toxic metal used in rat poison and insecticides. "It is tasteless, colorless and odorless," he said. "It takes about a gram to kill you."

Andres Virchis, a physician at Barnet Hospital in north London where Litvinenko was first treated, said yesterday that his bone marrow had failed and that he was not producing any normal immune cells or white cells.

As Litvinenko's condition worsened, he began to lose his hair, Virchis said.

Litvinenko was granted asylum in Britain in 2001 after leaving Russia six years ago. In 2003 he published a book, The F.S.B. Blows up Russia, accusing the Russian secret service of orchestrating a wave of explosions in apartment houses in 1999 that led to the second Chechen war.

He also claimed familiarity with the techniques of the Russian secret service. At the time of the poisoning of Yushchenko, Litvinenko said that a secret KGB laboratory in Moscow, still operated by the FSB, specialized in the study of poisons.

"The view inside our agency was that poison is just a weapon, like a pistol," said Litvinenko, who served in both agencies, from 1988 to 1999. "It's not seen that way in the West, but it was just viewed as an ordinary tool."

The accounts of intrigue could not be confirmed.

Alex Goldfarb, a friend who had visited Litvinenko in the hospital, told the BBC that doctors had told him that he had only a 50-50 chance of surviving. "He looks like a ghost," Goldfarb said.

Speaking later to reporters outside London's University College Hospital, where Litvinenko had been transferred, Goldfarb said the British police interviewed Litvinenko yesterday.

"He is in a fighting mood," Goldfarb said. Asked why Litvinenko might have been the target of an attack, Goldfarb said, "He is one of the top public enemies of the Russian FSB and of Putin, particularly because of his book."

He added that Litvinenko belonged to "the so-called London emigre circle, which was branded by Russia a terrorist cell on British soil."

Goldfarb called the poisoning "very scary - it means there's no limit."

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