Probe of radioactive poison traces its spread in London

Italian who met with ex-KGB agent is also contaminated

December 02, 2006|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- An Italian KGB expert who warned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko that his life might be in danger the day he was poisoned has a "significant quantity" of radioactive polonium-210 in his body, authorities said yesterday.

British health officials also said they had detected a small quantity in a close relative of Litvinenko's, though neither of the new victims has shown signs of illness. The revelations came as police zeroed in on traces of radiation found on British Airways jets that flew between Moscow and London, one of which may have carried suspects transporting the radioactive poison.

Through days of painstaking investigations, police have begun to draw a trail of radiation across London hotels and offices and airline flight manifests that security experts said could pinpoint how the radioactive substance was brought into London and possibly by whom.

Italian academic Mario Scaramella's exposure raises the likelihood that the poison was administered at the sushi restaurant in central London where the two men met briefly Nov. 1 - shortly before Litvinenko became sick - especially since the radiation trail appears to follow Litvinenko's movements across London after that rendezvous.

Scaramella has cooperated in the investigation, and authorities have not identified him as a suspect. After he arrived at London's University College Hospital yesterday wearing a mask, hospital officials said he had been admitted for examination.

"Tests have detected polonium-210 in Mr. Scaramella's body but at a considerably lower level than Mr. Litvinenko. He is currently well and shows no symptoms of radiation poisoning," hospital spokesman Dr. Keith Patterson said.

Scaramella had done exhaustive research into the archives of Vasily Mitrokhin, a KGB major who had defected to the West in 1992, taking numerous secret files with him. He had become acquainted with several former KGB agents, including Litvinenko - who had accused his former colleagues of involvement in several murders and attempted murders, and had obtained political asylum in Britain.

The Italian summoned Litvinenko to the meeting after he came upon an e-mail suggesting that criminals in St. Petersburg were behind the recent murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and were preparing to strike against Litvinenko and Scaramella.

Litvinenko discounted the threat, and the meeting was brief. Scaramella, who had already eaten, had a glass of water. Litvinenko had lunch. He died 22 days later in a London hospital.

There was no diagnosis in Moscow in another possible poisoning. Former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar fell ill suddenly during a conference in Ireland this week and remained hospitalized in Russia.

British police are investigating whether there are any links between the two cases.

After his meeting with Scaramella, Litvinenko met with his former partner in the KGB, Andrei Lugovoi. A Gaidar aide confirmed yesterday that Lugovoi acted as part of Gaidar's security detail in the early 1990s. Lugovoi subsequently left the KGB and became head of security at the Russian television network ORT, and remained friends with Litvinenko.

Lugovoi had traveled to London with his family and a large number of other Russian soccer fans to see a game between Moscow's popular CSKA team and London's Arsenal, according to the Moscow daily Kommersant. A Russian businessman, Dmitry Kovtun, accompanied Lugovoi to the meeting at London's elite Millennium Hotel, where several traces of polonium-210 have reportedly been found.

Litvinenko, who left a deathbed note alleging that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was responsible for his impending death, was convinced that he was poisoned at one of the two meetings but was not sure which, close friend Alex Goldfarb said in an interview.

"He clearly said that he knows it's one of them, but he didn't want to accuse anybody because he would hate to put a shadow on an innocent person," Goldfarb said. He works for a foundation funded by exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, whose offices, visited by Litvinenko after his poisoning, also showed traces of polonium-210.

Another finger pointed at the Russian security services yesterday with a letter to Litvinenko three days before his death from Mikhail Trepashkin, another former agent who is serving time on a charge of revealing state secrets. Trepashkin was the primary source for Litvinenko's book accusing the Russian government of organizing several explosions at apartment buildings across Russia in what became a prelude to the second Chechen war.

Trepashkin said he reported in 2002 that he had met an officer of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, who told him that "a very serious group" had been created that will "be snuffing out everybody connected with Berezovsky and Litvinenko."

He said the man asked for details about Litvinenko's family.

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