Russian probably poisoned at a bar

British health investigators pinpoint hotel in London

December 09, 2006|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was likely poisoned at the bar of a hotel here where he met with two other Russians, both of whom are currently in hospitals showing symptoms of radiation sickness, health investigators said yesterday.

For weeks, investigators had zeroed in on a different location, the Picadilly Circus sushi restaurant where Litvinenko had lunch, believing that that was a likely location for his mysterious poisoning with radioactive polonium-210.

But that theory has been shaken by medical evidence showing that seven people who worked at the bar of the Millennium Hotel in London's Mayfair district have also been exposed. The bar has been placed under quarantine.

Crucial question

Police have refused to say where they think the poisoning took place -- a crucial question, because it may be the best clue to who did it, and why. One law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said detectives have made no final judgment.

But the medical evidence "suggests" that the poisoning likely took place at the bar, Dr. Michael Clarke of Britain's Health Protection Agency said in an interview yesterday. "The monitoring of the staff in the Millennium bar was done for public health purposes, but it obviously has implications for the police forensic analysis--implications of timing, and possible scenarios for the administration of polonium."

Clarke emphasized that he is looking only at medical evidence, and not at whatever the police investigation has turned up. But that seven bar employees are exposed is significant, he said, especially since no sushi bar employees, and no hospital employees, have similarly tested positive.

"Given that Mr. Litvinenko had a very significant quantity of polonium-210 administered in some way, there are obvious possibilities that small amounts of that could have been left on, for example, a glass or a table, that subsequently led to employees being exposed. But until there is a proper forensic examination, I really don't want to speculate on that," Clarke said.

On Nov. 1, Litvinenko met two Russians at the Millennium's Pine Bar: Andrei Lugovoy, a businessman and former KGB colonel, and a second businessman, Dmitry Kovtun.

Russian news organizations reported yesterday that Lugovoy, who was a friend of Litvinenko's, is now in a Russian hospital with apparent radiation damage to several organs. Kovtun is also reported to be seriously ill.

Later that day, Litvinenko went to a London hospital with symptoms of what doctors eventually determined was polonium poisoning. He died Nov. 23.

The former Russian security agent, who became a bitter critic of the Russian government, told friends he suspected that the poisoner could have been one of the two Russians or the man he met at the sushi bar, Italian security consultant Mario Scaramella. Scaramella has also tested positive for exposure to polonium-210, but not in amounts sufficient to sicken him so far. He says he was meeting with Litvinenko to warn him of a possible attempt on his life.

Litvinenko also said he believed that the perpetrator was acting on behalf of the Russian government. The Russian government has denied that.

A crucial unanswered question is which came first -- lunch at the sushi bar or tea at the Pine Bar. Litvinenko told investigators that he went first to the sushi bar, then to the Millennium, a law enforcement source told The Times.

Asked how Scaramella could have been exposed if the poisoning happened at the Pine Bar, some analysts said he could have hugged and kissed Litvinenko on greeting him. That scenario, of course, makes sense only if Litvinenko was already exposed when he went to the sushi bar.

Testing suggested

But the contamination of the bar could also have taken place earlier, the law enforcement source said, pointing out that authorities have called on all patrons to seek testing who were in the bar, not only Nov. 1, when Litvinenko was there, but also a day earlier, Oct. 31, and a day later, Nov. 2.

Lugovoy, who has been described in the Russian media as the main witness in the case, was reportedly a guest at the hotel before the Nov. 1 meeting.

Traces of polonium-210 have been found in guest rooms at the Millennium as well, the police source said. Investigators have also detected polonium on two British Airways jets, one of which, British press reports said, carried Lugovoy and Kovtun to London.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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