British Police Investigate Poisoning of Putin Critic

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 20, 2006; 9:28 AM

LONDON, Nov. 19 -- British police are investigating the poisoning of a former Russian spy and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and have placed him under protective guard at a London hospital, a Scotland Yard spokesman said Sunday.

Alexander Litvinenko, 43, began vomiting shortly after he had lunch on Nov. 1 with a man who gave him documents related to the recent killing of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, according to Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko's.

Police said they began a criminal investigation Friday after medical tests confirmed the presence of poison in Litvinenko's system.

John Henry, a British toxicologist who has examined Litvinenko, said in an interview that the former spy had been poisoned by thallium, a highly toxic substance used as rat poison in some parts of the world.

"It is absolutely clear" that he was poisoned, said Henry, who was involved in the investigation of the 2004 poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, a Ukrainian presidential candidate who survived and won the race but was left disfigured.

Henry said Litvinenko had liver and neurological damage and a low white blood cell count. "He is very sick. . . . He may live, but he is at high risk of death."

Thallium is odorless, colorless and tasteless, Henry said. When ingested, he said, "as little as one-fifteenth of a level teaspoon is enough to kill."

Goldfarb, reached by telephone at Litvinenko's bedside, said Litvinenko's condition was "deteriorating dramatically."

"What happened here is an assassination attempt perpetuated by Russian agents," Goldfarb said. "I thought he would be safe here on British soil."

Goldfarb said that precious time was wasted because even though Litvinenko thought he had been poisoned immediately after the lunch meeting, doctors did not become alarmed until nearly two weeks later, when his hair started falling out as his condition worsened.

Litvinenko was a colonel in the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB, but fell out with his superiors and spent months in jail awaiting trial on charges of abusing his position. He was acquitted and fled in 2000 to London, where he was granted asylum. Goldfarb said Litvinenko was granted British citizenship last month.

Litvinenko is well known in Russia for accusing FSB agents of involvement in apartment building bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people. Russian officials blamed the attacks on separatists from Chechnya and launched a new military offensive in the republic.

Litvinenko also accused his FSB superiors of ordering him to kill Boris Berezovsky, a Russian tycoon who now lives in London.

Berezovsky said in a telephone interview that he visited Litvinenko in the hospital Friday and that he looked as if he had aged 10 years. "For 17 days he hasn't been able to eat. It's very painful to eat," he said.

Berezovsky said Litvinenko told him he had "no doubt" that he had been poisoned on the "order from President Putin to kill him." He called the poisoning "a classic way" that Russian agents work.

[Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press Monday that any suggestion of Russian government involvement in Litvinenko's poisoning was "nothing but sheer nonsense."]

Goldfarb said Litvinenko had eaten lunch at a sushi restaurant with an Italian contact who he said gave him "a few pages of material" related to the killing of Politkovskaya, the journalist and critic of Putin and Russia's policy in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was shot last month in Moscow.

The case, which remains unsolved, caused an international outcry.

Politkovskaya was hospitalized in 2004 and believed she had been poisoned.

Goldfarb said that Scotland Yard officers have taken the papers given to Litvinenko on Nov. 1.

According to British media reports, police have visited the sushi restaurant in central London to look for clues and to see whether any closed-circuit camera surveillance of the incident exists.

This incident is reminiscent of the 1978 poisoning of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was jabbed in the leg by a man with an umbrella while walking across Waterloo Bridge in London. The umbrella fired a pellet of ricin poison into Markov, who died an agonizing death days later.

Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company