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Polonium Traces Found in Germany

HAMBURG, Germany -- German prosecutors opened an investigation Sunday into a Russian associate of the murdered former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko after finding traces of the radioactive substance polonium in properties he used in Hamburg.

The German chapter in the Litvinenko mystery opened the same day the widow of the slain man went public for the first time, in the British media, with her thoughts about the murder.

Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun, who met Litvinenko in London on the day he fell ill, is being investigated on suspicion of illegally handling radioactive material, Hamburg's Chief Prosecutor Martin Kohnke said at a news conference.

There was "a reasonable basis for suspicion that he may not just be a victim but could also be a perpetrator," Kohnke said.

Litvinenko died Nov. 23 after receiving a lethal dose of polonium-210. In a statement released after his death, he accused President Vladimir Putin of killing him.

The Kremlin has denied involvement in the case that has spawned conspiracy theories, revived memories of Cold War spying and strained relations between Russia and Britain.

German officials found traces of radiation in a flat belonging to Kovtun's ex-wife in the northern city of Hamburg and in a house in Pinneberg, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, that belongs to Kovtun's former mother-in-law.

Radiation experts said Sunday that they were 95 percent certain that the traces had come from the radioactive isotope polonium-210. Final tests were needed to confirm this.

No actual source of radiation was found during the searches of the Hamburg properties; police have stressed that there is no risk to the population of the town.

Hamburg's Police Chief Werner Jantosch said there was no indication that the case had its roots in the city.

The plane on which Kovtun traveled to London on the day he met Litvinenko was also checked. No radiation was found.

Kovtun, who says Litvinenko was the middleman in one of his business deals, is now in a hospital in Moscow.

There have been conflicting reports as to why he was hospitalized.

Another important contact of Litvinenko's, Mario Scaramella, was given a clean bill of health on Saturday, one week after he was hospitalized in Britain by doctors who had found a "significant quantity" of polonium-210 in his body.

The Italian had met Litvinenko at a London sushi bar on the same day that Kovtun later drank with the former KGB agent during a 30-minute meeting at a hotel bar.

Meanwhile, Litvinenko's widow, Marina, in interviews with two Sunday newspapers and one television station, recalled the final hours of her husband, whom she called Sasha.

"Obviously it was not Putin himself, of course not," she said in an interview published in The Mail on Sunday.

"But what Putin does around him in Russia makes it possible to kill a British person on British soil. I believe that it could have been the Russian authorities."

Litvinenko said her husband, who had also worked for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, was not a spy but an investigator who focused on organized crime.

She stressed that it was his public criticism of the Russian authorities that likely had irritated his former colleagues at the security services.

"Sasha was a person who openly went out from the system and accused the system of killing people, of kidnapping," she told Sky News television. The system never forgives you for this; it doesn't matter whether what he said was true, just that he openly said it, she said.

Her husband -- who recently had become a British citizen -- felt safe in London, Marina Litvinenko said, and did not worry about reprisals from the Russian authorities.

"Sasha never felt he was a target for that," she told The Sunday Times. "Of course, he wondered about other people, but not about himself. ... But he was absolutely -- no, I can't say absolutely -- but he wasn't sure he was a target for them."

In the interviews, Marina Litvinenko also relived her husband's final hours and said the day he fell ill had been a special one for the couple. It was Nov. 1, the anniversary of the day they came to Britain.

"He began complaining that he felt sick. Then he vomited. I thought that would be it, but he did it again and again, about every 25 minutes," Marina Litvinenko told The Mail.

Also on Sunday, relatives and contacts of Alexander Litvinenko agreed to meet with Russian detectives probing his death in Britain -- if their safety were guaranteed, a family friend said.

"If it is important for the British as a way to get access to the witnesses in Moscow they would agree to speak to the Russians on two conditions," Litvinenko's friend Alexander Goldfarb said. Goldfarb added that he had spoken by telephone with two Litvinenko associates and Marina Litvinenko.

"First, that it is not on the grounds of the Russian embassy ... and second, that the British assure them they [the Russian police] have been checked for the presence of radioactivity or other tricky substances or devices," he said.


(The Moscow Times 11.xii.06)

 
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