Wed, Nov 22, 2006 - Page 7 News List

British counter-terrorism police probing alleged poisoning of former Russian spy

AFP , LONDON

The picture shows former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko on May 10, 2002.

PHOTO: AP

British counter-terrorism police have taken on the case of a former Russian spy and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was in intensive care yesterday in a London hospital after an apparent poisoning.

In Moscow, meanwhile, the authorities said "we have nothing to do with what happened to" Alexander Litvinenko, a former lieutenant-colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB.

Though they have no evidence, Litvinenko's friends blame the Kremlin for his Nov. 1 poisoning by thallium, an odorless and colorless toxic metal that used to be used in rat poison.

The transfer of his case to London's Metropolitan Police's Counter-Terrorism Command, SO15, indicates the investigation has been given a high degree of importance. Litvinenko has also been placed under police surveillance.

Litvinenko was moved to intensive care on Monday as a precaution following a slight deterioration in his health, doctors said, but he is still listed as being in "serious but stable" condition.

Recent pictures of the former spy released by the hospital showed him lying in green hospital garb, his bald head tilted slightly and his eyes half open, looking gaunt and weak.

Alexander Goldfarb, a friend who helped Litvinenko defect to Britain and become a British citizen a month ago, found him "more tired today, more exhausted" during a hospital visit on Monday.

Goldfarb added that because Litvinenko's bone marrow was not functioning there was a risk that his heart or kidneys could fail.

In attempting to determine how he became ill, police were interviewing possible witnesses, including the victim, examining his movements around the time of the apparent poisoning, and closed-circuit television footage. They were also awaiting the results of toxicology tests.

Goldfarb said Litvinenko had confirmed to him that he had "briefly" met two Russian men for tea in a hotel in central London on Nov. 1 before meeting an Italian academic for lunch.

After meeting the Italian, he began to feel ill. Litvinenko's friends have dismissed suggestions that the Italian was involved.

One of the two Russian men that met with Litvinenko was Andrei Lugovoy, a one-time head of security at a television station owned by controversial Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper reported that Litvinenko met with Lugovoy, whom he knew from Moscow, and another man, identified only as Vladimir, whom he did not.

Goldfarb and other friends of Litvinenko suspect that the FSB was out to get the outspoken defector, who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2001.

"It's linked to Moscow and the FSB," Goldfarb said, adding that Litvinenko had written two books accusing the Russian secret services of criminal activities. "He was a very vocal critic of President Putin."

Berezovsky, after visiting Litvinenko late on Monday, said that Litvinenko "personally thinks that it was organized in Moscow and Putin gave the order to poison him because he is former KGB."

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