MOSCOW -- Russia's chief prosecutor said yesterday that a key potential suspect in the poisoning death of dissident former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko has been hospitalized, and that British investigators would be allowed to see him only if doctors grant approval.
Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika said Russia's constitution forbids extradition of citizens, and that if any Russian suspects are identified in the case, they could only be tried in Russia. Despite earlier top-level pledges of Russian cooperation, he indicated that British investigators could face obstacles in pursuing leads in Russia.
Former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy, who met with Litvinenko in London on the day he is believed to have been poisoned with radiation, had previously expressed willingness to speak to investigators. But a man answering Lugovoy's cell phone yesterday said it was not clear "whether and when he will be able to talk" or how long he would stay in the hospital. The man, who identified himself as an aide named Alexander, said he was not authorized to comment on the nature of Lugovoy's hospitalization. Chaika said he believed that Lugovoy was "undergoing medical treatment" but said nothing about the nature of the illness.
In a statement written shortly before his death Nov. 23, Litvinenko blamed Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for his poisoning, an allegation that the Kremlin has angrily dismissed. Litvinenko told friends he believed that Lugovoy might have been the person who poisoned him.
Chaika said the questioning of witnesses and potential suspects would be carried out by Russians in the presence of British investigators, who arrived Monday. He left it unclear whether the British would be allowed to ask questions.
"They will not interrogate anyone," he said early in the news conference. Later, he appeared to modify that statement with an indication that British investigators might be allowed to ask some questions.
"We interrogate and they are present. They interrogate in our presence," he said. "We should perform those investigative actions, and they can take part in this with our permission. We may even deny them the right to take part. But we will do this together with them. We want them to take part."
The prosecutor's office has not launched an investigation of its own into the case, and will simply assist the British, Chaika said.
An Italian security consultant, Mario Scaramella, also met with Litvinenko on Nov. 1, the probable day of his poisoning with polonium-210. Scaramella, who authorities say also has a "significant quantity" of polomium-210 in his body, has said that he asked to meet Litvinenko after receiving an e-mail suggesting that people behind the recent unsolved killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya were preparing to strike Litvinenko and himself.
Officials in London said they recognize that Russia is one of several nations that do not extradite their citizens for criminal prosecutions. A spokesman for the Home Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that should a Russian citizen commit an offense in Britain, there are procedures for trying the case in Russia.
British Home Secretary John Reid, speaking Monday in Brussels, Belgium, said the investigation "will proceed as normal, whatever the diplomatic or ... wider considerations."
He said Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett "made plain to her Russian colleagues that we are asking them to give us all the support and information that they can."
The Kremlin has pledged to cooperate in the investigation, he said. But analysts said Chaika's comments did not seem to indicate that there would be full cooperation.
"The main message Chaika sent to the world today is that there are powerful forces within the Russian political elite which are not interested in an objective investigation of the Litvinenko murder and are not interested in allowing the people who may well be implicated in that crime, like Andrei Lugovoy, for instance, to say something to the British investigators that they shouldn't," said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank.
David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.