Russian Ex-Spy, A Putin Critic, Dies in London After Poisoning

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 24, 2006

LONDON, Nov. 23 -- Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died Thursday night in a London hospital after being mysteriously poisoned.

Litvinenko, 43, was placed under armed guard at the hospital last week after medical tests confirmed he had been poisoned. Doctors said his thick brown hair suddenly fell out and he suffered severe liver and bone marrow damage. But they said they have been unable to identify what caused the exceptionally fit man to start vomiting Nov. 1, grow steadily sicker and die.

"His heart just stopped," said Alex Goldfarb, a friend who has been at his bedside. "The family is devastated."

University College London Hospital released a statement saying Litvinenko died at 9:21 p.m. after "the medical team at the hospital did everything possible to save his life" and to determine the "cause of his condition." It said that because of an ongoing police investigation, it would make no further comment.

Litvinenko was a colonel in the Federal Security Service, FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, who became highly critical of some of his superiors. He is well known 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 fled Russia for Britain in 2000 and was granted political asylum and then citizenship. He has been living in London with his wife and son.

Recently, Litvinenko began looking into the unsolved killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot last month in Moscow. She too was a prominent critic of Putin.

Litvinenko was absolutely adamant that the poisoning was done on behalf of Putin, said Goldfarb, reached by phone last night. He said Litvinenko had told him soon after he began vomiting Nov. 1 that he been poisoned but it took nearly two weeks for medical tests to confirm it.

Before Nov. 1, Litvinenko was "more than fit. He ran five miles every day," Goldfarb said.

Kremlin officials have denied any involvement in the case, which has received considerable attention in Britain and abroad, calling it "nonsense" to link the poisoning to Putin or Russian security services.

On Nov. 1, after having tea with two Russians at a central London hotel and then lunch with an Italian contact at a sushi restaurant, Litvinenko began feeling sick and vomiting, according to interviews with close friends.

Mario Scaramella, the Italian, held a news conference in Rome on Tuesday and said he had nothing to do with the poisoning and was cooperating with police. He said that at the lunch meeting, he showed Litvinenko e-mail messages "regarding their security" and listing people said to be involved in Politkovskaya's murder.

Goldfarb said he felt confident that postmortem exams would determine what poison was used and that he had confidence in British police investigating the case.

But he added, "Even if it is not ever solved, it will stay as an indictment of the police state that Mr. Putin has built in Russia."

A spokesman at Scotland Yard said the "suspicious poisoning" case is now being handled as "an unexplained death."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company