Radiation fears hit London

Politically the death last week of Alexander Litvinenko, which his supporters claim was a Soviet-era type sting, is also increasingly threatening to strain relations between London and Moscow.

“There is no need for public alarm,” Home Secretary John Reid said in a hastily-arranged statement to parliament on the rapidly-evolving situation following the radioactive poisoning of Mr Litvinenko.

“We are not yet even at the stage where the police have been telling me that there is definitely a third party involved in this,” he added, repeatedly refusing to point the finger at Russia.

But in a sign of how seriously London is taking it, Mr Reid again called a meeting of COBRA, the top security body which in the past has met for incidents including last year’s July 7 terrorist attacks, to assess the risks.

Speaking to lawmakers afterwards, Mr Reid confirmed that traces of the radioactive substance polonium 210 had been found in two hospitals where Mr Litvinenko spent his dying days, a sushi bar and a hotel he visited on November 1, and “certain” other places in London.

Police later confirmed that they had found traces of polonium 210 at two addresses in London, one on Grosvenor Street in the up-scale neighbourhood of Mayfair, and another on Down Street in west London, which Mr Litvinenko’s friend Alexander Goldfarb confirmed was the office of exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky.

Contamination fears

Mr Reid also confirmed that health authorities had so far sent three people for radiological tests, after some 500 people rang a helpline over the weekend concerned that they may have been contaminated.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has also sought to allay concern, pointing out that the kind of alpha radiation involved can only travel tiny distances, so the risk of contamination is minimal.

The COBRA security body first met last Thursday, the day the 43-year-old ex-spy finally succumbed to a mysterious illness which struck him down on November 1, shortly after he met two unidentified Russians in a London hotel.

In a letter read out by his spokesman the morning after his death, Mr Litvinenko bluntly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of his “barbaric” killing.

Mr Putin has dismissed the allegations as “political provocations” from critics, adding, “I hope British authorities will not allow the fuelling of political scandals.”

Britain has already asked Russia, via its ambassador in London, for any information on the unprecedented killing, which critics blame on Moscow, pointing out the difficulty of obtaining polonium 210.

Inquest into death

An inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death will be formally opened on Thursday.

The formal inquiry is likely to adjourn shortly after being opened, since the full inquest will have to wait until the police investigation has been completed.

Doctors have postponed carrying out a post-mortem on Mr Litvinenko due to safety fears for the medics involved. Reports suggest it will not take place until Tuesday at the earliest.