By Peter Finn and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 14, 2006
MOSCOW, Dec. 13 -- Two key figures in the poisoning of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko said in news media interviews Wednesday that they had been contaminated with radiation in London earlier than is widely supposed. This, they contended, explains a trail of polonium-210 later left in Hamburg by one of the men.
The recent discovery of traces of the radioactive isotope in places Dmitry Kovtun visited during a stopover in Hamburg while en route from Moscow to London in late October has been cited by German authorities as potentially incriminating, on grounds that he may have carried the substance from Moscow to London.
Members of Litvinenko's family said they believe he was poisoned Nov. 1, the day he met the two other Russians at the bar of a London hotel and began feeling sick.
Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, both 41, are undergoing treatment for radiation poisoning in Moscow. By some accounts, their exposure dates from that same Nov. 1 meeting.
In an interview published Wednesday in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, Lugovoy disputed that. "It happened much earlier -- on Oct. 16," Lugovoy said. "Polonium-210 traces were found in a security firm in London which we visited on Oct. 16. We didn't visit it during our November trip."
That means, he said, that he and Kovtun were poisoned during the Oct. 16 trip. "That's how all these traces all over Europe can be explained," he said. He offered no explanation for how the two might have been poisoned.
Kovtun similarly told Spiegel TV in Germany that he must have been poisoned in mid-October and then carried the trail to Hamburg: "I can only explain the polonium traces in that I must have brought them with me from London when I met with Alexander Litvinenko there on October 16, 17 and 18."
Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko's who has been acting as a family spokesman, called those traces of polonium-210 in Germany "a smoking gun" and said he believed that Kovtun somehow brought the polonium from Moscow to Germany and then on to London. Goldfarb called the new statements of Kovtun and Lugovoy "baloney." The two men "should come up with another story," he said.
Lugovoy, a former KGB officer, earlier said he visited the Erinys security company with Kovtun and Litvinenko in October; that appeared to be the security company to which he referred in his statement published Wednesday.
Traces of polonium-210 were found in the London building where Erinys is located. Lugovoy appears to be arguing that because he and Kovtun have polonium poisoning and the office that they visited only on Oct. 16 was contaminated, they must have been poisoned then. But others familiar with the case said it is possible that a contaminated Litvinenko visited that office Nov. 1 and left the traces there.
Goldfarb said police have been retracing Litvinenko's movements before Nov. 1 and have found no radiation trail. But after Nov. 1, Goldfarb said, Litvinenko was so full of polonium-210 that he left traces everywhere he went, from offices he visited to the ambulance that carried him to the hospital. "He was a walking Chernobyl," he said, referring to the Soviet nuclear reactor that flared out of control in 1986.
Kovtun, who has been reported to be seriously ill, also said in the interview that he is feeling better. "My levels are almost normal," he said. "The results are very good and I hope to be released from the hospital by the end of the week."
Jordan reported from London. Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.