Death of ex-Russian spy is ruled a murder

December 07, 2006|By David Holley and Kim Murphy | David Holley and Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- British authorities formally classified the recent poisoning death of a dissident former Russian spy as a murder case yesterday, changing it from a suspicious death.

Alexander Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned with radioactive polonium-210, probably on Nov. 1, a day when he met with several people in London.

British and Russian investigators questioned one of those people, Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun, at a Moscow hospital yesterday, where he was apparently undergoing checks for radiation. Questioning of a second businessman, Andrei Lugovoy, who attended the same meeting and is also hospitalized, was put off at least until today.

Both men have been viewed as key witnesses and potential suspects.

Police are pursuing "many lines of inquiry" in Britain and Russia and have interviewed a number of witnesses, a London police statement said.

"Detectives investigating the death of Alexander Litvinenko have reached the stage where it is felt appropriate to treat it as an allegation of murder," said the statement.

"Detectives in this case are keeping an open mind, and methodically following the evidence," it added. "It is important to stress that we have reached no conclusions as to the means employed, the motive or the identity of those who might be responsible for Mr. Litvinenko's death."

Among Litvinenko's close friends in London was Akhmed Zakayev, foreign minister in Chechnya's self-declared separatist government, whom the Kremlin calls a terrorist. Zakayev said yesterday that Litvinenko converted to Islam as he lay dying, and that a Muslim funeral service would be held for him today in a London mosque.

Litvinenko's body will not be brought to the funeral, due to safety concerns stemming from the polonium-210, but instead will be taken directly to a cemetery for burial after the service, Zakayev said.

Doctors have found that Mario Scaramella, an Italian security consultant who met Litvinenko at a London sushi restaurant on Nov. 1, also has significant quantities of polonium-210 in his body. Scaramella was released from a London hospital yesterday in apparent general good health.

The British Foreign Office announced yesterday that small traces of radiation have been found at the British Embassy in Moscow. Businessman Lugovoy visited the embassy early in the investigation to offer cooperation and deny any involvement in Litvinenko's poisoning. That visit triggered the examination.

British officials said an expert team had conducted precautionary checks on the embassy, detecting small traces of radiation, but below levels at which there would be a risk to health.

While investigators were speaking with Kovtun, Lugovoy spoke with the Russian news agency Interfax and expressed willingness to be questioned.

"Currently they are talking to my business partner Dmitry Kovtun, who is undergoing a medical examination at the same hospital as myself," Lugovoy said. "I cannot exclude the possibility that, after talking to my partner, the investigators will decide to talk to me as well. I want to repeat again that I have never refused to meet with British investigators.

Lugovoy also expressed anger at becoming a target of speculation in news reports.

"As for the hullabaloo about me that has been stirred by Western media, in my view good theatrical directing is traceable here," he said. "I've stopped watching television and reading papers. I'm fed up with all this."

Lugovoy's lawyer, Andrei Romashov, told Interfax that British investigators had said they wanted to question his client as a witness, not a suspect, in the case.

British health officials have also found traces of radiation at about 14 locations in London, including Emirates Stadium in North London, where Lugovoy and a large number of other Russians attended a soccer match Nov. 1.

Health Protection Agency spokeswoman Alex Baker said tests on a certain area of the stadium were conducted at the request of Scotland Yard and confirmed "barely detectable" levels of a radioactive substance. "We determined there was no risk to public health and we made that clear," she said.

Health officials have not identified the substance as polonium-210, but they have stressed that polonium-210 is present in very small quantities in the human body and throughout the environment.

David Holley and Kim Murphy write for the Los Angeles Times.

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