Germans Investigate Russian in Poisoning

By Shannon Smiley and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 11, 2006

HAMBURG, Dec. 10 -- German prosecutors said Sunday that they are investigating a Russian businessman for the illegal handling of a radioactive substance in the days after he flew to Germany from Russia and before he left to meet a former Russian internal security agent in London. The development is the strongest indication so far that the plot to poison Alexander Litvinenko in London originated in Moscow.

At a news conference in this port city, German officials said Dmitry Kovtun, who reportedly lies sick in a Moscow hospital, flew to Hamburg from Moscow on Oct. 28 before heading to London on Nov. 1, the day he met Litvinenko at a bar at the Millennium Hotel.

Hamburg's chief prosecutor, Martin Koehnke, said traces of radioactivity found in and around Hamburg and linked to Kovtun's movements before Nov. 1 suggested that he carried the substance to Germany. Koehnke said it was still possible that Kovtun was merely present when polonium-210 was "packaged in Moscow," but German investigators are convinced that he was in contact with the deadly isotope before he met Litvinenko.

"There is probable cause for the initial suspicion that he might have brought the substance with him outside his body to Hamburg, and that he may not only be a victim but could also be a perpetrator," Koehnke said at the news conference in Hamburg police headquarters.

Bolstering that assertion, Thomas Menzel, a police officer leading the investigation, said there is no evidence that Kovtun had returned to Germany after the London meeting with Litvinenko, all but ruling out the possibility, as Kovtun has claimed, that he first came into contact with a radioactive substance at the meeting with Litvinenko.

"We cannot be absolutely sure at the moment, but there has been no evidence to suggest that he returned to Hamburg," Menzel said.

"He is considered to be a suspect," German police said in a statement.

German radiation experts said Sunday that they had confirmed the presence of polonium-210, the substance that killed Litvinenko, at two locations in Germany and were 95 percent certain that traces found at other locations had come from that radioactive isotope. Final tests were needed to confirm its presence at some locations, German officials said. Officials did not specify exactly where the polonium-210 had been found.

Menzel said Kovtun, a Soviet army veteran and business consultant who had lived in Germany for 12 years, flew to Hamburg from Moscow on an Aeroflot flight.

"Aeroflot is not available to us. It is probable that he was already contaminated when he flew on the plane," Menzel said. "We have not received any answers to our questions so far" from Russian authorities.

The Germans have dubbed their investigation "The Third Man," though officials did not explain the reference to the Graham Greene mystery. More than 170 police officers are working on the case, along with members of the federal border police, the federal criminal police and radiation protection officers.

The killing of Litvinenko, which Scotland Yard has classified a murder case, had already led to some deterioration in relations between Britain and Russia, but it now has the potential to impact the wider relationship between the European Union and Russia. Critics of President Vladimir Putin have accused the Kremlin of complicity in the killing, allegations that the Kremlin rejected as absurd amid repeated assertions that the polonium almost certainly did not originate in Russia.

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