No public risk after poisoning, says Britain

Yet tests are urged for those who were around late ex-spy

November 26, 2006|By New York Times News Service

LONDON --British authorities said yesterday that they did not expect a major threat to public health after the disclosure that a former Russian KGB officer and enemy of the Kremlin had been killed by radiation poisoning in London.

The Health Protection Agency, however, urged people who had been in the same places as the victim, Alexander V. Litvinenko, 43, to contact the authorities for urine tests.

Litvinenko died Thursday as a result of poisoning by a radioactive isotope called polonium 210, but the police have not established how it entered his body. His friends have accused President Vladimir V. Putin of responsibility, but Putin has strongly denied the assertion.

The nature of the death evoked Cold War spy thrillers as much as it kindled animosity between some Russian exiles and the Kremlin. And it left Britons pondering whether their capital had become a theater for a long-range conflict between the two sides. British diplomats have generally sought to play down the incident, calling it a police matter.

Yesterday, Britain's crisis management committee, called COBRA, for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, met to debate the matter, and the Health Protection Agency issued a new statement urging people who had gone to the sushi restaurant and hotel bar Litvinenko visited Nov. 1 to contact Britain's National Health Service. "We expect that we are going to do tests, and we expect that they are going to be negative and we have no reason to think customers are at risk," the Health Protection Agency said.

The police said Litvinenko had visited the Itsu sushi bar in central London and the Pine Bar of the Mayfair Millennium Hotel on Nov. 1. They said Friday that they had found radioactive traces at each location and at Litvinenko's home in north London.

"We want to reassure the public that the risk of having been exposed to this substance remains low," the Health Protection Agency statement said. "It can only represent a radiation hazard if it is taken into the body -- by breathing it in, by taking it into the mouth, or if it gets into a wound." The agency said it was also checking areas of two hospitals where Litvinenko had been treated.

In Russia, Litvinenko's death caused a different kind of sensation. "Abomination," the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote yesterday. "That's what you think looking at the pandemonium created by the West" in reaction to Litvinenko's death.

The state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta sought to shift the accusations to one of Putin's fiercest critics, Boris A. Berezovsky, the self-exiled tycoon who was close to Litvinenko. The paper's assertions, without evidence, echoed others made by officials and news organizations all week.

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