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Britain Expands Litvinenko Inquiry

The investigation into the poisoning death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko is taking British police to the United States and Russia and will continue expand to wherever "the police take it," a senior British official said Sunday.

Doctors, meanwhile, said they had found a "significant quantity" of polonium-210 -- the radioactive element suspected of killing Litvinenko -- in the body of Italian researcher Mario Scaramella, who met Litvinenko the day he fell ill.

Investigators over the weekend cleared airplanes suspected of being contaminated with polonium-210 and allowed them to resume flights.

British Home Secretary John Reid said Sunday that the inquiry into Litvinenko's Nov. 23 death was expanding and would go wherever "the police take it."

"Over the next few days, I think all of these things I think will widen out a little from the circle just being here in Britain," Reid said on Sky News television.

British law enforcement officials visited the United States last week to interview former KGB officer Yury Shvets, who claims to have passed information to Litvinenko on links between the Kremlin and Yukos. British authorities also have asked the FBI for assistance.

British investigators were preparing Sunday to leave London for Moscow to interview several people, including KGB veteran Andrei Lugovoi, who also met Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, an unidentified British police official told The Associated Press. Itar-Tass said nine investigators would arrive Monday.

Lugovoi, who denies any role in the poisoning, has said Moscow doctors found no traces of polonium-210 in his body. He and a Russian associate, Dmitry Kovtun, met Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel on Nov. 1. A senior British government source told London's Daily Telegraph in Friday's issue that polonium-210 had been dropped on the floor of the hotel. Industrially produced polonium is usually encased in capsules.

Matthew Bunn of Harvard University's Managing the Atom Project said that if a "patch of contamination" was found on the floor of the hotel, the handler might have dropped the polonium-210 while transferring it from a capsule into a dispensable form that could be used to poison someone. This "suggests the level of the incompetence" of the killers, he said.

Lugovoi has said he traveled to London with his wife, children and a group of Russian soccer fans to watch a game between CSKA Moscow and London's Arsenal. British police visited Arsenal's Emirates stadium Friday.

Earlier on Nov. 1, Litvinenko met Scaramella at a sushi restaurant in central London.

London's University College Hospital said Sunday that the 36-year-old researcher had been exposed to a "significant quantity" of polonium-210 but was not showing any poisoning symptoms. Scaramella, the Italian researcher, was hospitalized and "feeling well," the hospital said in statement.

Investigators have found traces of polonium-210 at the restaurant.

Doctors said insignificant traces of the poison had been found in Litvinenko's widow.

Litvinenko, who blamed President Vladimir Putin for the poisoning in a deathbed statement, was convinced that he had been poisoned at one of the two meetings, but he did not know which, said a friend, Alex Goldfarb. Putin has strongly denied any involvement.

At the sushi restaurant, Scaramella gave Litvinenko a memo written by Yevgeny Limarev, whose father served with the KGB in the 1970s and now lives in Switzerland, researching security, the Daily Telegraph reported Saturday, citing a copy of the memo.

The memo claimed that Russian security service officers and an organization called Dignity and Honor, headed by Colonel Valentin Velichko, were trying to kill Litvinenko and his patron, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, the newspaper said. The memo was a purported hit list that also included Scaramella and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in an apparent contract killing last month. Human rights activist and novelist Vladimir Bukovsky is also on the list, British tabloid News of the World reported.

A man also named Valentin Velichko -- who headed the Club of Veterans of State Security after retiring from foreign intelligence with the rank of a colonel -- played an important role in securing the release of Medecins Sans Frontieres' Dutch doctor Arjan Erkel in 2004. Erkel was kidnapped in Dagestan in 2002.

Former Dutch Ambassador Tiddo Hofstee has said he gave 1 million euros to Velichko and that Velichko collaborated with Federal Security Service officers to chart a plane to Dagestan on April 9, 2004, and win Erkel's release three days later.

Velichko has denied accepting any money.

An organization called Club Dignity and Honor/Regional Public Organization of Veterans of Special Services and Law Enforcement Agencies is registered at 15/2 Novy Arbat. Calls to this organization went unanswered Sunday. A security guard told an Ekho Moskvy reporter who visited the building over the weekend that no organization by that name operated there.

A team of three pathologists in protective gear conducted a postmortem exam on Litvinenko's body Friday. Full results are not expected to be announced for several days. The BBC reported that because of fears of radiation, Litvinenko's remains would have to be buried in a specially sealed casket.

Julia Svetlichnaja, an academic from the University of Westminster, wrote in a comment published in The Observer on Sunday that Litvinenko had told her of plans to blackmail prominent Russians. She said Litvinenko claimed access to Russian intelligence documents with information about people and companies on a Kremlin blacklist.

"He told me he was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information about all kinds of powerful people, including oligarchs, corrupt officials and sources in the Kremlin," Svetlichnaja wrote.

Svetlichnaja wrote that she "almost regretted" giving Litvinenko her e-mail, as he began feeding her information "with such gusto that in the weeks before his death I had started deleting most of his messages without opening them."

Svetlichnaja did not respond to an e-mail for comment Sunday.

The Observer reported that Litvinenko had claimed in the weeks before his death that he had a file with damaging revelations about the Kremlin and its relationship with Yukos. The file was complied by Shvets, the former KGB agent who until recently lived in Virginia, an associate of Shvets told the Observer.

Shvets said by telephone last week that he had what he believed was a credible lead in the case, but he declined to elaborate. He said he was now in hiding.

Mikhail Trepashkin, an imprisoned former FSB officer, said in a letter released Friday that he had warned Litvinenko several years ago that the FSB had formed a unit to kill him, Berezovsky and other Kremlin foes. Trepashkin said he was invited to join the unit in 2002.

Trepashkin, who like Litvinenko accused the FSB of being behind the 1999 apartment bombings, received a four-year prison sentence on May 19 after being convicted of revealing state secrets and illegally carrying a pistol in his car.

Trepashkin said in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, that authorities had put him in a cell contaminated with poisonous chemicals and threatened to kill him after his arrest.

"Litvinenko and I aren't the last in this chain of victims of persecution," he wrote. Maybe Litvinenko's death "could make you believe in what he was saying."

It was unclear whether scientists had determined the origin of the polonium-210. The Guardian has speculated that the polonium could have come from "the principal plant" in the Krasnoyarsk region.

The report was denied by the largest nuclear facility in the region, the Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine. A plant manager, Viktor Ovsyannikov, said the plant had no polonium, the VolgaPolitInfo news agency reported. An official in the plant director's office declined to comment on the issue Friday.

The plant stores spent nuclear fuel and has a reactor designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium, according to the web site of Bellona, a Norwegian-based environmental watchdog.

Alexander Koldobsky, professor with the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, confirmed that it would be "more or less" possible to trace the nuclear reactor that produced the polonium-210. Polonium is usually produced from bismuth in a reactor.

Traces of polonium have been found at more than a dozen locations across London, including Litvinenko's home and Berezovsky's office. British authorities last week also found radiation on three British Airways planes that flew between London and Moscow. After being checked, the planes were been allowed to resume flights.

Russian authorities delayed a Finnair flight in Moscow on Saturday in a radiation scare. No radiation was found.

British authorities also have cleared two easyJet planes that Scaramella flew to Britain to meet Litvinenko and back to Italy.

Bunn, the Harvard specialist, expressed bewilderment by the discovery of radiation at so many locations. He said that while Litvinenko might have left traces of polonium through his sweat after he was poisoned, it was a mystery how the substances entered the planes. He said the two most logical explanations were that the person carrying the polonium had been contaminated himself or that investigators were confusing low concentrations of the substance that occur naturally with the poison in the Litvinenko case.


Another Suspect for the List

The official Russian response to the death of Alexander Livtinenko has been doubly ugly.

Just as was done with Anna Politkovskaya, the significance of his life and life's work was immediately belittled. The Foreign Intelligence Service stated that Litvinenko was not important enough to kill at the risk of disrupting British-Russian relations. The implication is that had Litvinenko been of greater significance, killing him on British soil would have presented much less of a problem.

Even uglier is the attempt to cast President Vladimir Putin's administration as the real target and victim of the crime. Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky stated that the recent spate of politically motivated murders appears to have been timed to coincide with Putin's attendance at important meetings, and thus to blacken Russia's image.

Litvinenko and Politkovskaya are linked in other ways. He was investigating her murder at the time of his own. But how can one insignificant person investigating the murder of another insignificant person be cause for such a significant and risky act as an assassination on the international stage? It is possible, of course, that either Politkovskaya or Litvinenko had found information damaging to Putin or his administration. Still, it's hard to imagine what information could have been worse than using murder to cover it up. And why use such a risky weapon as the polonium-210 that left traces from London to Moscow? The choice seems illogical and unprofessional.

So, in whose interest would it be to poison a former Russian intelligence agent with radioactive matter on foreign soil? One obvious suspect is Boris Berezovsky, the exiled businessman and Putin's sworn enemy. Litvinenko claimed to have been originally ordered by the Federal Security Service to kill Berezovsky, but instead became his employee and associate. Both men were strong proponents of the theory that the security services were behind the apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that served Putin as a pretext for the second war in Chechnya.

Would Berezovsky have sacrificed one of his pawns to strike at the king in the Kremlin? The idea seems excessively lurid, grandiose and absurd even for Russian events. The government has been working out an extradition deal with Britain, but it doesn't seem likely to affect Berezovsky, so it is unclear what his immediate motivation would be.

Russia has been increasingly paranoid about U.S. intentions of late. During his Nov. 8 visit to the new headquarters of the General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, Putin hinted darkly about countries that act in "unilateral" and "illegitimate" ways as they seek to "impose" their system on others. Blaming the United States might be convenient, but Russian-U.S. relations are so bad that they hardly require such dramatic hijinks.

So does that mean that there are no conceivable alternatives to the crime having originated within Putin's administration? Unfortunately, no.

Ukraine fits the bill. One can imagine rogue members of the Ukrainian security services acting to support elements in government and society who desperately wish to join NATO and the European Union. Led by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, these elements have been on the defensive since the resurgence of Putin's man, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and his Party of Regions, meaning those parts of eastern and southern Ukraine that are mostly ethnic Russian. They are against joining NATO and even opposed last week's bill designating famine created by Stalin in the Ukraine in 1932-33 as genocide. For many Ukrainians, however, those memories are sufficient reason to seek the protection from Moscow that only NATO can provide. Russia's interference in Ukraine's presidential elections and the brief shut-off of gas last winter can be interpreted as signs of Russia's desire to dominate, if not reincorporate, Ukraine. Ukraine's vulnerability was underscored by its absence at last week's NATO meeting in Riga, the first ever on former Soviet territory.

The spectacular murder of an anti-Putin figure in London would grab and keep the world's attention for a good while. The reflex reaction would be to blame Putin. European sentiment for including Ukraine in NATO would be strengthened and pro-Western sentiment at home would grow. Yushchenko's own disfigurement by poison even adds a motif of vengeance.

The real problem is that there are too many suspects and too few facts. In time, the facts will squeeze out the more extreme scenarios. I trust the Ukrainian variation will be among the first to go.


(The Moscow Times 04.xii.06)

 
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