Blair Pledges to Pursue Probe of Ex-Spy's Death
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
LONDON, Nov. 28 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that "there is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way" of investigating the mysterious fatal poisoning of a former Russian spy in London and that he planned to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the matter "at any time that is appropriate."
"It obviously is a very serious matter and we are determined to find out what happened and who is responsible," Blair said about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, 43, the former agent and a vocal critic of Putin. Doctors said Litvinenko was poisoned by a radioactive substance known as polonium-210.
Litvinenko, whose hair fell out and organs failed three weeks after he first felt ill, blamed Putin for his death, according to a statement that friends said he dictated as he lay dying last week. The Kremlin has called that allegation "nonsense."
Blair's remarks came as Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, another ardent critic of Putin living in London, confirmed that traces of the radioactive substance were found in his office in central London.
In a statement Tuesday, Berezovsky said the substance was discovered as a result of "police investigation of all the locations visited by Andrew Litvinenko" on Nov. 1, the day he became ill. Police closed and sealed Berezovsky's office.
Berezovsky did not say in his statement whether he had met with Litvinenko on Nov. 1 -- the day police believe he was poisoned. Police are trying to retrace Litvinenko's steps, piecing together his whereabouts with security camera footage, his cellphone records and interviews with him before he died Thursday.
Alex Goldfarb, a friend of both Litvinenko and Berezovsky, said in an interview that Berezovsky and his staff had been tested for exposure to radiation. Litvinenko used Berezovsky's facilities as a "back office," Goldfarb said. "If he needed to make a Xerox copy, he would come in and use the Xerox machine and then go out."
Scotland Yard has said it also found traces of polonium-210 in Litvinenko's home and at a central London sushi restaurant and a hotel he visited Nov. 1.
Late Tuesday, police began to search two more locations -- a building at 58 Grosvenor and the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly. A spokesman said that as of almost midnight, no radiation had been found.
More than 1,100 people have called a help line for those worried over possible exposure to the radiation, health officials said, and eight people showing some symptoms were being referred for further tests.
Mario Scaramella, an Italian who has said he met with Litvinenko at the restaurant Nov. 1 and showed him sensitive e-mail messages, said Tuesday that he was under British protection and being tested for contamination, the Associated Press reported.
Russia's top nuclear official, Sergei Kiriyenko, weighed in on the case Tuesday, saying that controls on the export of polonium are very tight. "Allegations that someone stole it during production are absolutely unfounded," Kiriyenko told reporters.
Kiriyenko said Russia exports eight grams of polonium-210 monthly, all of it to the United States. He said that Russia used to provide it to British companies but that exports to Britain ended about five years ago.
Kremlin supporters have been fingering Berezovsky as a likely assassin of Litvinenko; they say he gained from Litvinenko's death because he is using it to try to smear Putin's reputation internationally.
Oleg Morozov, a top official of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, told journalists that "Russia and the Russian authorities had the most to lose from the death. . . . There is a well-known formula: If you cannot figure out what happened, try to understand who could have benefited from it. . . . That is why, from this standpoint, the appearance of traces of polonium-210, which reportedly caused Litvinenko's death, in an office of businessman Boris Berezovsky will help make clear certain things."
Morozov said Litvinenko "was exposed to polonium somewhere. Maybe it happened at this office. I do not know."
Berezovsky visited Litvinenko in the hospital and has said he believed Putin was behind the poisoning. When Litvinenko was a member of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB, he accused his superiors of ordering him to kill Berezovsky.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.