By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 1, 2007
MOSCOW, May 31 -- The former KGB agent whom British prosecutors have accused of poisoning another former agent in London said Thursday that the British intelligence service MI6 was a likely suspect in the killing.
At an 85-minute news conference in Moscow, Andrei Lugovoy offered no evidence to support his claim. He unleashed a blizzard of counter-allegations that portrayed -- in very broad strokes -- a netherworld of espionage, criminality and murder in which he was the target of an MI6 recruitment effort.
Earlier this month, Britain's Crown Prosecution Service formally sought Lugovoy's extradition, accusing him of murdering Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. Lugovoy, now a businessman in Moscow, immediately promised sensational revelations to buttress his consistent claims of innocence. But Thursday's event seemed designed more for the Russian domestic audience.
He spoke at a time of high diplomatic tension between Moscow and London over Russia's refusal to extradite him. His claims received broad and uncritical attention in much of the Russian media, where government influence is strong and foreign plots against Russia are frequently reported.
Lugovoy, 42, said British intelligence officials had recruited Litvinenko as well as Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon and implacable foe of President Vladimir Putin. Berezovsky, he said, was an alternative suspect in the death of the former domestic intelligence officer.
And if it wasn't MI6 or Berezovsky, he said, it was probably the Russian mafia seeking revenge because of information Litvinenko passed to police in Spain about Russian criminals in that country.
Litvinenko met with Lugovoy and another former Russian agent, Dmitry Kovtun, at the bar of the Millennium Hotel in London on Nov. 1. British investigators contend that the toxic substance was introduced into Litvinenko's tea at that meeting. He died a painful death on Nov. 23.
Lugovoy denied any role in the poisoning. He suggested that Litvinenko himself had long possessed polonium-210. "Souvenirs and a number of documents that Litvinenko gave me long before November 1 had traces of polonium," Lugovoy said. "It is possible that Sasha himself was leaving the traces; however, that theory was discarded by the British justice system from the very beginning." Sasha is the Russian diminutive for Alexander.
Whatever the case, Lugovoy said he was the victim of an elaborate frame-up.
He noted that he had traveled to London with his wife and children and that "only a monster" would put his family at risk. And he said the trail of polonium traces found on planes that flew between Moscow and London and at locations across the city didn't exactly track his movements, as British authorities have claimed.
Lugovoy said British intelligence officials had become increasingly disillusioned with Litvinenko, particularly his loose lips while in Lugovoy's company, when he discussed his connections with "high-ranking officers at MI6."
Lugovoy said that during previous trips to London he had spurned an approach from MI6, which wanted him to gather compromising material on Putin. Litvinenko, he said, was involved in the recruitment effort, and his failure to turn Lugovoy diminished his value to his British handlers.
"It is hard to get rid of the thought that Litvinenko was an agent who was out of control and therefore was eliminated," Lugovoy said in his forceful, and at times combative, presentation. Asked if he had evidence to support his allegation against MI6, he said, "I have," but declined to elaborate.
The Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, is Britain's overseas intelligence-gathering agency and reports to Britain's foreign secretary. A spokesman for the British Foreign Office declined to respond directly to Lugovoy's allegations.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, as is standard government practice in Britain, the spokesman said: "Our position is clear. A request for extradition of Mr. Lugovoy to face trial in a U.K. court has been handed over. We await the formal Russian response. This is a criminal matter and not an issue of intelligence."
Lugovoy also said that Litvinenko had gathered compromising material on Berezovsky, who fled Russia after clashing with Putin in 2000, and was using it for blackmail. Berezovsky had been a patron of Litvinenko, but shortly before the poisoning, the wealthy businessman cut an allowance he paid to Litvinenko, according to Lugovoy.
"I can suppose that he did not abandon these attempts to blackmail Berezovsky, and it is quite possible this led to tragic consequences," Lugovoy said.
Berezovsky dismissed the allegations. "Andrei Lugovoy's statement is in effect a Kremlin statement," he said in a phone interview on Echo Moskva radio after Thursday's news conference. "It is part of a campaign of state lies."
Berezovsky and Lugovoy have known each other since the 1990s, when Lugovoy was chief of security at a television station Berezovsky owned in Moscow. Lugovoy said that during trips to London in 2005 and 2006 he was first lured toward working for British intelligence by Berezovsky, who suggested he get in touch with Litvinenko.
Litvinenko got him work with a British security firm, where he was paid far more than his consulting services on risk management in Russia, he said. The company, he implied, was an MI6 front. "The Britons in fact suggested that I collect any information that could compromise President Putin and members of his family," Lugovoy said.
Lugovoy said Litvinenko gave him a novel by a popular Russian writer that they would use as a code book. "We were supposed to use a code based on the numbers of pages, paragraphs and lines, like they do in spy movies," he said.
Lugovoy said he declined to become involved. "I cannot call myself an ardent supporter of President Putin, for which I have my personal reasons, of which many could be aware," he said. "But I was taught to defend my country rather than betray it."
Correspondent Kevin Sullivan in London contributed to this report.