Ex-KGB agent in London gravely ill from poison

Associates blame Russia

Kremlin denies involvement

November 21, 2006|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW -- It's a crime straight out of the pages of a Cold War spy novel. A former KGB agent, who angered the Kremlin and was investigating a murder, lunches with an Italian who claims to have useful leads. When the ex-spy gets back to his London home he keels over, poisoned with rat killer.

What happened to Alexander Litvinenko on Nov. 1, however, was real and gravely serious. Doctors say he ingested thallium, a highly toxic substance used mostly in rat poison, and is fighting for his life at University College Hospital in London.

Litvinenko's friends and associates blame Russian authorities for Litvinenko's poisoning, though they acknowledge that they have no evidence. They argue that Litvinenko's writings, as well as his alliance with exiled Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, made him a prime target for Russian authorities.

Yesterday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Associated Press that allegations of government involvement in Litvinenko's poisoning were "nothing but sheer nonsense."

A friend of Litvinenko's, Alexander Goldfarb, said doctors at University College Hospital estimate Litvinenko's chances of surviving at 50 percent.

"He looks like a ghost," said Goldfarb, who has been visiting Litvinenko regularly. "All of his hair is gone, and he's very thin."

A gram of thallium, a colorless, odorless heavy metal, is enough to kill. Once ingested, it causes extensive damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach and intestines. It also wreaks havoc on the immune system; Goldfarb said doctors told him that Litvinenko's white blood cell count has dropped to nearly zero.

Goldfarb said Litvinenko, 43, has not been able to eat and is being fed intravenously. Despite his condition, he is able to speak and has been meeting regularly with investigators from Scotland Yard about the case.

Goldfarb said Litvinenko had two meetings on the day he was stricken. He first met with two Russian men from Moscow at a London hotel, where he drank tea. Later, he met with an Italian academic, Mario Scaramella, at a sushi restaurant called Itsu. Scaramella has helped investigate KGB activity in Italy during the Cold War.

Litvinenko had been probing the Oct. 7 murder of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an ardent Kremlin critic who frequently wrote about human-rights abuses committed by Russian soldiers in the separatist conflict in Chechnya. Scaramella gave Litvinenko documents that contained information he believed was useful in the Politkovskaya probe, Goldfarb said.

Litvinenko said in an interview with a Russian media outlet before his condition worsened that Scaramella called him unexpectedly Nov. 1 and asked to meet.

"I ordered the food, and he took just water and was hurrying me," Litvinenko said in the interview. "From the text, I understood that the mentioned people could have really arranged the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. As soon as I got home, I put down the papers and I [collapsed]."

Litvinenko became a KGB agent in 1988 and rose up the ranks at the intelligence agency until the fall of 1998, when he appeared at a news conference and accused the agency of asking him to help assassinate Berezovsky. The next year, Litvinenko was arrested on charges of abuse of office and spent nine months in jail before winning an acquittal in 2000.

With Goldfarb's help, Litvinenko fled to Britain and was granted political asylum in 2001. He became a British citizen last month.

Goldfarb said that what has angered the Kremlin the most about Litvinenko is a book he published in 2003, Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within, which claimed that Russian intelligence agents engineered a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities that killed nearly 300 people in 1999.

Russian authorities blamed the attacks on Chechen separatists who had been fighting to break away the small, mountainous republic of Chechnya from Russia. Litvinenko, Berezovsky and others in their circle claim the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, orchestrated the bombings to help rally Russians around then-Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin's vow to crush the rebellion.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Thallium

What it is:

A colorless, odorless, water-soluble heavy metal; only a gram of thallium can kill. It is as toxic as arsenic and even more so than lead.

How it works:

Thallium's effects are not immediately noticeable and frequently take weeks to kick in. The poison works by knocking out the body's supply of potassium, essential for healthy cells.

Russian victim:

Col. Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and Federal Security Service agent, is in a hospital in London fighting for his life after being given thallium.

Associated Press

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