London spy murder takes new twist

Russian suspect blames poisoning on British agents and Kremlin foe

June 01, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- The Russian businessman accused by British prosecutors of fatally poisoning former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London turned the tables yesterday and blamed the death on British secret services -- and a fierce opponent of the Kremlin who lives in self-imposed exile in Britain.

Andrei Lugovoi, a former bodyguard with the KGB, also alleged that Litvinenko had been recruited as a spy for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service and that Litvinenko had tried in turn to recruit him to gather "compromising material" on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

"Attempts were made to recruit me as a British intelligence service agent," Lugovoi said at a press conference at the Russian news agency Interfax, nine days after promising to release information that would cause a sensation in Britain.

Lugovoi added that he was asked to "collect any information that could compromise President Putin and members of his family" but that he refused.

Lugovoi accused the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a vocal Kremlin critic who lives in London and is wanted in Russia on various charges, of working for the British intelligence agency known as MI6. And he said Berezovsky might have been involved in the death of Litvinenko, who he alleged was blackmailing Berezovsky after a falling out.

Lugovoi said he had evidence to prove his allegations, which were immediately dismissed by Berezovsky and the British Embassy in Moscow, though he produced none and did not elaborate. Lugovoi said he would turn over documents and other materials to Russian law enforcement officials, who have been conducting their own investigation into Litvinenko's death.

The British Crown Prosecution Service said last week that it had sufficient evidence to charge Lugovoi with Litvinenko's murder and requested his extradition to Britain to stand trial -- a request that Russia has rejected on the grounds that its constitution prohibits it. Litvinenko, who also worked for the KGB and its domestic successor, the FSB, before fleeing to Britain with his family, died in November after being poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210.

Lugovoi, who met with Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, has repeatedly denied any involvement in the killing and did so again yesterday. He said that he and an associate, Dmitry Kovtun, who has also been questioned in the case, had been "marked" with polonium in an attempt to frame them.

According to Lugovoi's account, he was recruited by Litvinenko, who had worked for Berezovsky, to collect damaging information on a Russian official who was then to be lured to London. There, British intelligence officers allegedly planned to extract compromising material on Putin "in exchange for silence about his personal bank accounts."

Lugovoi said he was given a British cell phone and a copy of the Russian novel Rubashka, or The Shirt -- a story depicting a day in the life of an architect named Sasha, who arrives in Moscow from the provinces. The book contained a secret code based on the number of pages, paragraphs and lines of text, Lugovoi said.

While Lugovoi conceded that he is not a Putin supporter, he said he told Litvinenko that he would not work as a British spy because he was "taught to defend my country rather than betray it." Lugovoi said Litvinenko was angered by his refusal, and he suggested that Litvinenko fell out of favor with his British handlers.

On Ekho Moskvy, a Russian radio station, Berezovsky denied being a British agent and said Lugovoi's statements were coming straight from the Kremlin. Berezovsky has blamed the Kremlin for Litvinenko's killing, as Litvinenko himself did in a letter he purportedly penned on his deathbed.

"It's apparent that by killing Alexander Litvinenko, the Kremlin wanted to shift the blame to me," Berezovsky said.

Theories on Litvinenko's death offered in the largely compliant Russian press have generally centered around Berezovsky.

The British Embassy likewise dismissed Lugovoi's allegations.

"This is not an issue about intelligence, it is a criminal matter," the embassy said in a statement. "It is a very serious affair -- a British citizen was killed in London, and U.K. citizens and visitors were put at risk.

"Our position is clear. We have handed over a request for extradition of Mr. Lugovoi to face trial in a U.K. court. We now await an official and constructive response from the Russian authorities."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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