Spy death sparks poison fears

The demise of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko is being linked to alpha radiation from polonium 210 in his urine, traces of which were found at a sushi bar and hotel where he met contacts before falling ill on November 1.

Amid fears that the poisoning could provoke a diplomatic row between
Britain and Russia, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain acknowledged on Sunday that relations between the nations were now very difficult.

His is the first such allusion to the case by a senior politician.

Authorities on Saturday appealed for members of the public who visited the two locations frequented by Mr Litvinenko on November 1 to get in touch with the state-run health service’s telephone hotline.

Between 200 and 300 called on Saturday, a spokesman told news agency AFP, adding that that he was not able to say how many provided cause for concern.

But sources said that no one has yet presented doctors with “anything similar” to Mr Litvinenko’s symptoms.

Those suspected of being at risk are being asked to fill in a questionnaire and submit to urine testing, though the risk of public contamination is thought to be low.

As health authorities work to damp down public concern, Secretary Hain attacked President Vladimir Putin’s policies in Russia during an interview with BBC television.

He was not asked directly about the Mr Litvinenko case but said that, while the early stages of the Putin regime had shown promise, this has been “clouded by what’s happened since, and including some extremely murky murders of the senior Russian journalist”.

This was a reference to the death last month of Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of the role of Russian forces in Chechnya, whose case Mr Litvinenko was investigating at the time of his death.

Mr Hain also said that there had been “huge attacks on individual liberty” in Russia, adding it was important that Mr Putin “retakes the democratic road”.

The British government’s emergency planning committee, COBRA, has met several times in the last few days to discuss the death, which police are treating as suspicious.

London has also asked Moscow to provide any information which might help police with inquiries into the death of Mr Litvinenko, who left Russia six years ago and was granted British citizenship.

Counter-terrorism officers are also tracking down witnesses, retracing
Mr Litvinenko’s movements, identifying people he may have met and examining closed circuit television footage.

Scotland Yard declined to comment on a report on Sunday that British detectives were to fly to Moscow and Rome this week to pursue their enquiries.

One of Britain’s most senior police officers, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, has told ministers that it is too early to conclude that Mr Litvinenko was murdered, sources said.

Mr Litvinenko named a senior Kremlin agent, Viktor Kirov, as the man he believed responsible for targeting him, in his last full interview in hospital just days before his death on Thursday, the Sunday Times reported.

An Anatoly V. Kirov was listed as a diplomat at the Russian embassy in London until late last year, the weekly said.

Mr Litvinenko did not accuse Kirov of direct involvement in his poisoning, but his revelation would reinforce suspicions that he was killed by an assassin with links to state bodies, The Sunday Times said.

Anti-terror police have requested that the newspaper hand over its tape of the interview, the paper added.

Meanwhile, the News of the World newspaper named a 46-year-old trained assassin known as Igor — his middle name — as being linked to the death.

Mr Putin has called the poisoning a “tragedy” and said accusations of official Russian involvement were “political provocation”.

In Russia, the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper has said that Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning could have been orchestrated by his associate, exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky, to discredit Russian authorities.