Germans begin poisoning probe

Focus of inquiry is businessman who met with former Russian spy before he died

December 11, 2006|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- German authorities announced yesterday that they had begun a criminal investigation of a Russian businessman after finding traces of polonium-210 around Hamburg beginning Oct. 28 -- four days before he met in London with the former Russian spy who died after ingesting the radioactive substance.

The British police have found no evidence of polonium contamination in London earlier than the date of that meeting, Nov. 1. Yesterday's announcement raised the possibility that the polonium was carried from Moscow to London by way of Germany. It has also added to suspicions that the case is somehow connected to the shadowy world of agents and businessmen, defectors, spies and exiles let loose by the dissolution of the KGB and still entwined with successor agencies.

The former Russian spy, Alexander V. Litvinenko, long a critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, made deathbed accusations that Putin was complicit in the poisoning -- an accusation the Kremlin has derisively dismissed. The case has strained relations between Russia and Britain, and has now entangled Germany.

The man the Germans have put at the center of scrutiny is Dmitri Kovtun, a 41-year-old Russian who was a student in the 1980s at the Supreme Soviet Higher Military Command School, many of whose students went on to serve in the KGB. He has been in a Moscow hospital since Dec. 7, suffering from exposure to polonium. There are conflicting reports about his health.

At a news conference in Hamburg yesterday, the city's chief prosecutor, Martin Koehnke, told reporters, "He may not just be a victim but could also be a perpetrator." He said that Kovtun was accused of illegally handling the polonium.

A spokeswoman for the German police, Ulrike Sweden, expressed frustration that Russian authorities had not responded to German requests to speak to Kovtun.

The German authorities said that Kovtun, who has been living in Germany, began spreading traces of polonium-210 in Hamburg soon after he arrived on an Aeroflot jet from Moscow on Oct. 28. Traces were found in the BMW that picked him up at the airport, on a couch and a pillow in the apartment of his ex-wife, where he spent the night, in the house of her mother, and on a document he signed in a meeting at the immigration office in Hamburg two days later, the police said.

On Nov. 1, Kovtun flew to London. There, Kovtun met with two former KGB agents, Andrei K. Lugovoi and Vyacheslav G. Sokolenko. Then he and Lugovoi met with Litvinenko at a bar in the Millennium Mayfair Hotel, ostensibly to pursue a business deal.

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