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Britain Investigates Suspected Poisoning

LONDON -- British police said Sunday that they were investigating the suspected poisoning of former FSB Colonel Alexander Litvinenko, who fell ill as he was investigating the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Scotland Yard said it began an investigation Friday. Litvinenko, 43, who was under armed guard in University College Hospital in London, fell ill with symptoms of near-fatal poisoning on Nov. 1, and was initially taken to another hospital. UCH described his condition as "serious but stable."

Detectives were trying to identify what had caused Litvinenko's condition and who was responsible, a Scotland Yard spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. The spokesman added that no arrests had been made.

Toxicologist Dr. John Henry, who has been treating Litvinenko, told the BBC. that the former agent had been poisoned by thallium -- a toxic metal commonly found in rat poison. "It points to that in his blood stream," he said.

Media reports and friends of the outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin said he had suffered damage to his kidneys and bone marrow, was vomiting regularly and had lost his hair. Sky News television reported that he had suffered a complete breakdown of the central nervous system.

Businessman Boris Berezovsky said he visited Litvinenko on Friday and doctors told him prospects for the former spy's recovery were "50-50."

"He's in bad shape," Berezovsky said by telephone. "There is very strong damage to his body and he's lost his hair. He has protection now, there are bodyguards outside his room."

The Sunday Times said it interviewed him at his bedside at another London hospital, where he was registered under a false name.

It said he fell ill after having a meal on Nov. 1 with an Italian man who claimed to have information on the killing of Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was gunned down Oct. 7 in her Moscow apartment building. Her attackers have not been found.

Politkovskaya wrote articles criticizing abuses by federal and pro-Moscow Chechen forces fighting separatists in Chechnya.

"They probably thought I would be dead from heart failure by the third day," Litvinenko was quoted as saying in the Sunday Times. "I do feel very bad. I've never felt like this before -- like my life is hanging on the ropes."

Litvinenko was quoted as saying the Italian contact he had met with simply "disappeared" after their meeting at a sushi restaurant but said he was not in a position to accuse him of involvement in the poisoning.

Glenn Edwards, operations manager at Itsu restaurant, said detectives had arrived at the restaurant Saturday asking for close-circuit television footage. He added that there was no link between the restaurant's food and the poisoning.

Berezovsky said Litvinenko's family had sought the assistance of the same British toxicology experts who treated Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned in the runup to his 2004 election campaign.

Litvinenko joined the KGB and rose to the rank of colonel in its successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. He fled Russia and claimed asylum in Britain in November 2000, two years after publicly accusing his FSB superiors of ordering him to kill Berezovsky, at the time a powerful Kremlin insider.

He also has accused FSB agents of coordinating 1999 apartment building bombings that killed more than 300 people. In 1999 and 2000, Litvinenko spent nine months in jail awaiting trial on charges of abusing his office but was acquitted. He then fled to Britain.

(The Moscow Times 20.xi.06)

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