Friends of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko accused "evil forces" in Russia yesterday of being responsible for his death in London overnight, saying the poisoning of the ex-colonel was an act of revenge.
Russia said it was silly to suggest the Kremlin had orchestrated a plot against 43-year-old Litvinenko, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. British doctors said Litvinenko had been poisoned but did not know the exact form.
His death on Thursday occurred on the eve of an EU-Russia summit in Helsinki at which Putin is now likely to face media questions about the former spy that could overshadow the main agenda of how the two sides can improve ties.
"He was fighting against the evil forces in Russia, against the KGB, against the authorities which are suppressing democracy and liberal freedoms in Russia," Oleg Gordievsky, a friend of Litvinenko, told Sky television.
"He became a victim of ... revenge and malice of those forces in Russia," said Gordievsky, also a former Russian agent who defected to Britain.
Litvinenko, who lost all his hair and suffered major organ failure, died in a London hospital's intensive care unit after being poisoned three weeks ago.
One doctor said the identity of the poison may never be known. Medical experts have ruled out earlier suggestions it was caused by a heavy metal such as thallium or by radiation.
British police said they were investigating what they called the "unexplained" death and that anti-terrorism officers were working on the case. Litvinenko spoke to police from his hospital bed before his condition deteriorated.
If Russia was found to have had a hand in the poisoning, there could be far-reaching diplomatic consequences. It would be the first such incident known to have taken place in the West since the Cold War.
"The bastards got me. But they won't get everybody," Litvinenko told friend and filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov before losing consciousness earlier this week.
The former spy also told his friend that he wanted to survive the apparent poisoning "just to show them", referring to the Kremlin. The comments were published in yesterday's Times newspaper.
A source in the Russian delegation with Putin in Helsinki told reporters: "It is a human tragedy. The man was poisoned."
"But the accusations towards the Kremlin are so unbelievable, they are too silly to be commented on by the president or anyone from the Russian side," said the source, asking not to be identified.
Litvinenko served in the KGB's counter-intelligence department and then the Federal Security Service's (FSB) highly secret organized crime group. The FSB is the main successor organization to the Soviet KGB and deals with internal threats.
He was arrested several times by the FSB but was freed by a court and charges were dropped.