Two Old Friends at Center of Poison Mystery

German police officers search for traces of polonium-210 near a house in Haselau, Germany, visited by Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun, now under treatment in Moscow.
German police officers search for traces of polonium-210 near a house in Haselau, Germany, visited by Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun, now under treatment in Moscow. (By Andreas Rentz -- Getty Images)
By Peter Finn and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

MOSCOW, Dec. 12 -- At a closed hospital run by the Federal Medical-Biological Agency, two Russian men, friends since they were 12-year-olds, lie removed from the world and at the center of an international poisoning drama.

Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, who visited with former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko the day he fell ill, have declared their innocence, as the investigation narrows to this city and to at least one of the men, Kovtun.

Each discovery of a trace of polonium-210, the radioactive isotope that killed Litvinenko, acts like a carelessly left fingerprint. British and German investigators say a trail of positive readings matches the movements of Kovtun from Moscow to Hamburg on Oct. 28 and then on to London, where he met with Litvinenko at the bar of the Millennium Hotel on Nov. 1.

Kovtun and Lugovoy both have ties to the Russian security services that Litvinenko said were out to kill him on President Vladimir Putin's orders. Yet they also have long-standing bonds with Putin's exiled enemies, who are seen in Moscow as likely suspects. How Kovtun, 41, came into possession of or contact with polonium-210 remains unanswered. He gave two interviews to Russian reporters in late November and has remained silent since. There are unconfirmed reports that he is seriously ill from radiation exposure.

Asked on Echo Moskvy radio on Nov. 24 what he thought had happened to Litvinenko, Kovtun said, "Of course I am thinking about it. But I dealt with justice so I would be very careful with any comments. I don't want to go into detail and tell fortunes from coffee grounds."

German police are investigating Kovtun as a suspect in illegal handling of a radioactive substance. Russian prosecutors call him a victim and have opened an attempted murder case on grounds that he was poisoned.

From age 12, Kovtun and Lugovoy lived in the same apartment block in Moscow, their fathers both employed in the Soviet Defense Ministry. They went on to the same elite academy, the Supreme Soviet Military Command School, which turned out military and KGB officers.

Lugovoy joined the KGB in 1987 and was assigned to the Ninth Department, or Kremlin guard, which provided security for high-ranking Communist officials. Kovtun went on to serve in what was then Czechoslovakia and later in East Germany, apparently as a military man. Whether he had an intelligence role there remains unknown.

At some point, Kovtun married a German, Marina Wall, now 31. He moved to the port city of Hamburg. Authorities there said he has held an unrestricted visa to live and work in Germany since the mid-1990s.

Police said they were investigating tips that Kovtun may have worked in Hamburg as a waiter.

Kovtun and Wall divorced but kept in touch. He rented an apartment one floor below his ex-wife's residence in a working-class part of Hamburg, neighbors said, but did not live there.

Police have established that Kovtun visited Wall in October on his way to London. He visited a local immigration office on Oct. 30 to update his visa.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company