Ex-spy's friends form ideas about death

February 11, 2007|By Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella | Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- Yuri Felshtinsky well remembers when he spent the better part of five hours pleading for the life of his friend, Alexander Litvinenko.

It was May 22, 2000. Litvinenko, a colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, had just spent four months in prison, having gone public with allegations that senior secret police officers were involved in murder and kidnap operations for financial gain.

Now he was free, but for how long? Felshtinsky called up Litvinenko's old boss, Maj. Gen. Yevgeny Khokholkov, and agreed to meet him for dinner at a small restaurant near Moscow's old Ukraina Hotel.

Khokholkov owned the restaurant and ordered it closed for the night so the two men could talk privately. "We were sitting there for five hours, from 7:30 to 12:30, discussing the fate of Litvinenko. It was a nice, professional conversation. I think it was a very honest talk," Felshtinsky recalled recently.

"But the general explained to me there was no way, just no way, Litvinenko's going to be pardoned. ... He went against the system. He committed treason. And he was going to be punished for this."

"At one point, he said, `If I ever see him in my doorway, I will kill him with my own hands.' And he put his two hands together as if he was smashing the neck, as if it was a piece of pipe, or a baguette. And then he just said, `I'm joking, of course.' But it was clear he was not joking. They hated him so much."

Litvinenko died 6 1/2 years later, felled by a dose of radioactive polonium-210 that investigators now believe was delivered by a poisoned cup of tea in a London hotel bar. British police have spent months investigating the apparent homicide, in which 119 other people were at least slightly contaminated by polonium, including 15 who face long-term health risks, officials said.

As London prosecutors determine whether to file criminal charges, Felshtinsky and others of Litvinenko's expatriate Russian friends have pieced together their own picture of how the former agent died. The friends, who include the former London station chief for the KGB - the spy agency that preceded the FSB - detailed their theory of the case in recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times. British law enforcement officials confirmed some of their contentions.

Based on their conversations with Litvinenko as he lay dying, their own contacts in the world of former KGB agents, and their meetings as witnesses with police investigators, these Russians believe Litvinenko's murder was the one Felshtinsky had tried to avert seven years earlier - a punishment for betrayal from an organization that forgets nothing.

They believe that the true killer might have been a tall, elusive Russian man known only as "Vladislav" who shows up on airport surveillance videos and was present briefly during Litvinenko's fatal lunch, then disappeared without a trace. Most likely, they say, he was a highly trained Russian spy operating in Europe.

"I'm absolutely sure this was a formal decision of the FSB," Felshtinsky said. "Litvinenko was a target. The death trap was there. The sentence was there. It's just politically they probably could not allow themselves to kill him until now."

London police appear not so ready to settle on a motive. "It's still a complex picture," said a British security official familiar with the case. Investigators have "put together a good forensic picture but not much on the motive."

The official confirmed that investigators are looking at the mysterious Vladislav, although he was cautious about the Russians' description of him as a top intelligence operative. The official also said the British investigation has focused on two Russian businessmen who Litvinenko's friends believe were at least collaborators in the case: Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun. Both men, former FSB agents, sat with Litvinenko in the Millennium Hotel's Pine Bar as he drank the apparently deadly cup of tea.

Lugovoy and Kovtun have acknowledged meeting with Litvinenko but say it was purely a business meeting. Both are back in Russia and have apparently suffered from radiation sickness. They say they would never have knowingly exposed themselves to polonium, which was found not only in the hotel bar, but also in a hotel room believed to have been occupied by Lugovoy.

Russian authorities and former officials of the secret services there have also strenuously denied any involvement in the case. They point out the illogic of using so exotic a poison and targeting a dissident who largely had faded from public view.

The possible involvement of Lugovoy and Kovtun is puzzling. If they were the killers, why did they not disappear after Litvinenko's death? Instead, they presented themselves to the British Embassy in Moscow for questioning and gave a news conference.

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