A Dirty Case

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

WHEN THE former Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning in November, many people assumed that his murder, like those of numerous other opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, would never be solved. But Mr. Litvinenko was killed in London, not in Moscow, and Scotland Yard believes it has cracked the case. According to reports in several of Britain's leading newspapers, the police have concluded that two former KGB agents who met Mr. Litvinenko at a hotel on Nov. 1 are prime suspects in his death.

The two men are Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard to top Communist apparatchiks, and Dmitry Kovtun, a former army officer in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. They allegedly left traces of polonium-210, the rare substance that killed Mr. Litvinenko, nearly everywhere they went on their journey from Moscow to London and back. The teapot used at their meeting with Mr. Litvinenko was found to be heavily contaminated, according to the newspaper reports. In fact, the assassins apparently delivered something like a "dirty bomb" of radiation to London: According to Britain's Health Protection Agency, contamination was found at 20 sites around the city, and 129 people appear to have been exposed.

Given the seriousness of the crime, a vigorous prosecution of the Russians might be expected. Only, they have a powerful protector: Mr. Putin's own government, which, while denying any culpability in Mr. Litvinenko's killing, is nevertheless blocking British access to Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun. During a visit to Moscow in December, British detectives were not allowed to directly question the two men, who were then staying in hospitals. Russian officials then opened their own "investigation" and drew up a long list of Putin enemies in London -- from Chechen rebels to former executives of the Yukos oil company. No evidence connects anyone on the Russian list to the murder, but Moscow is saying it will not allow Scotland Yard access to the real suspects unless it can interrogate its targets in Britain.

There's no proof yet that Mr. Putin ordered or approved the London dirty bomb, but the questions for him keep multiplying: Why, if the Russian authorities are innocent, do they deny access to Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun? Why do they continue to blame enemies of Mr. Putin without offering any evidence? What explains the leakage of a dangerous quantity of polonium, which is produced and held almost exclusively in Russia? And why, as a Polish newspaper documented last week, were pictures of Mr. Litvinenko being employed for target practice last November at a training center used by elite Russian special forces? The director of the center, a founder of a special operations unit, was accused by Mr. Litvinenko of being a KGB agent whose facility prepared contract killers. Mr. Putin is holding his annual international news conference tomorrow; we hope he'll be prompted for some answers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company