Ex-premier's illness probed

Doctors suspect poisoning, say aides of Gaidar

December 01, 2006|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DUBLIN, IRELAND -- Irish authorities launched an inquiry yesterday into the sudden and violent illness of former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, whose aides say might have been the victim of poisoning.

Gaidar's illness while attending a conference in Ireland on Nov. 24 appeared to deepen the mystery surrounding the poisoning death a day earlier of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, although there was no immediate indication from investigators that the cases were linked.

Irish diplomats in Moscow interviewed the 50-year-old economist and academic, who told them that doctors had concluded that "any radiological poisoning has been excluded," Irish government sources said.

But in Moscow, aides and associates of the former prime minister, who was a chief architect of Russia's transition to a market economy, said doctors believed "poisoning" was the most likely explanation for his condition.

"At this stage, the main version is poisoning. We will have to wait for the doctors' verdict to find out whether it was a food poisoning or something else," Gaidar's spokesman, Valery Natarov, said in a telephone interview. He said a final diagnosis was expected as early as today.

Gaidar's daughter, Maria, told the BBC: "It's not an official conclusion, but so far the doctors cannot see any other reason [for] the condition of my father than that he was poisoned."

She said family members believed he might have been the victim of a "political poisoning" with "an idea of destabilization of [the] situation in Russia," but she added that the family did not suspect Russian authorities.

Gaidar has been a controversial figure in Russia because the economic reforms he engineered plunged millions into poverty while allowing a handful of businessmen to become billionaires. He has kept a relatively low profile recently, running the Institute for the Economy in Transition, a Moscow think tank.

In Ireland, detectives began interviewing hospital staff and embassy employees yesterday at the hospital near Dublin where Gaidar was treated and at the university where he fell ill.

"Public health and safety is of paramount importance, and there is nothing known which indicates that any member of the public is at risk. If this situation changes, appropriate action will be taken," Ireland's national police said in a statement.

Irish Foreign Ministry spokesman Myles Doherty said Dublin authorities knew of no evidence of a deliberate poisoning. "We haven't learned of anything that would suggest that there was anything untoward about the illness," he said.

But an official source in Dublin said Irish authorities were moving quickly to determine "for our own security what happened."

In London yesterday, more than 5,500 people called a hot line set up to identify passengers on at least 221 flights flown between London and Moscow by five passenger jets that counterterrorism investigators say are of interest in the Litvinenko case. At least two of the jetliners have shown traces of polonium-210, the radioactive substance that apparently killed the former spy turned dissident.

Authorities have said there is little chance of damaging exposure unless the substance is ingested. But they are attempting to screen passengers and those who were at the central London sushi restaurant, hotel and other locations that also have shown the presence of polonium-210.

As of Wednesday night, 69 people had been referred to a health agency for screening; of those, 18 were referred to a special clinic for examination, Home Secretary John Reid told Parliament yesterday. None of the nearly three dozen urine tests conducted so far has shown radioactivity, he said.

"There are 24 venues being monitored, and experts have found traces of contamination at 12 of these venues. Police continue to trace possible witnesses and to trace Mr. Litvinenko's movements at relevant times. It is probable the investigation will bring additional locations to our attention for screening," Reid said.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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