Dying ex-spy accused Putin
LONDON: A former Russian spy who died in London was poisoned with a radioactive substance, the British government said Friday. In a dramatic deathbed statement, Alexander Litvinenko blamed a "barbaric and ruthless" Russian President Vladimir Putin for the attack.
Putin called the death a tragedy, but accused his opponents of "political provocation."
The former KGB agent and vociferous Kremlin opponent died late Thursday after spending days in intensive care in a London hospital.
Britain's Health Protection Agency said the rare radioactive element polonium-210 had been found in his urine. The agency described the poisoning as "an unprecedented event."
"I've been in radiation sciences for 30-odd years and I'm not aware of any such incident," said Roger Cox, director of the agency's center for radiation, chemicals and environmental hazards.
The agency's chief executive, Pat Troop, said that the high level indicated "he would either have to have eaten it, inhaled it or taken it in through a wound."
"We know he had a major dose," she said.
Troop said the agency was evaluating whether it was safe to perform an autopsy.
Home Secretary John Reid chaired a meeting of COBRA, the government's emergency committee, to discuss Litvinenko's death, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said. Prime Minister Tony Blair's Downing Street office said he was in Scotland and had not attended.
At a meeting Friday with Russian Ambassador Yury Fedotov at London's Foreign Office, British diplomats asked Moscow to provide all assistance necessary to a police inquiry into the death, government officials said. Putin has pledged to cooperate.
Peter Clarke, head of London's anti-terrorist police, said officers and military radiation experts were searching several locations in London. Traces of radiation had been found at Litvinenko's north London house, a sushi bar where he met a contact Nov. 1, the day he fell ill and a hotel he visited earlier that day, he said.
The restaurant and part of the hotel were closed during a police search, with officers removing materials in heavy metal boxes.
Clarke said extensive tests by forensic toxicologists on behalf of police — which began before Litvinenko's death — had on Friday confirmed the presence of Polonium-210.
"There is no risk to the public unless they came into close contact with the men or their meals," said Katherine Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency.
Polonium-210 occurs naturally and is present in the environment at very low concentrations, but can represent a radiation hazard if ingested.
"Only a very, very small amount of polonium would need to be ingested to be fatal, but that depends on how pure the polonium is," said Dr. Mike Keir, a radiation protection adviser at the Royal Victoria Infirmary.
Keir said polonium poisoning was extremely difficult to detect because the type of particles it emits — alpha particles — do not penetrate outer layers of the body.
Experts said small amounts of polonium-210 — but not enough to kill someone — was used legitimately in Britain for industrial purposes.
Professor Dudley Goodhead, a radiation expert at the Medical Research Council, said that "to poison someone, much larger amounts are required and this would have to be manmade, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor."
Chris Lloyd, a British radiation protection adviser, said it would be relatively easy to smuggle polonium into the country, because its alpha radiation would not set off radiation detectors.
Litvinenko suffered heart failure late Thursday at London's University College Hospital after days of battling a poison that had attacked his bone marrow and destroyed his immune system.
His statement, read by his friend Alex Goldfarb to reporters outside the hospital Friday, accused Putin of having "no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value."
"You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed," Litvinenko said in the statement.
"You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."
Goldfarb said Litvinenko had dictated the statement before he lost consciousness on Tuesday, and signed it in the presence of his wife, Marina.
Putin's government strongly denied involvement.
"A death of a man is always a tragedy and I deplore this," Putin said when asked about Litvinenko during a news conference after summit talks with European Union leaders.
Putin said the fact that Litvinenko's statement was released only after his death showed it was a "provocation."
"It's extremely regrettable that such a tragic event as death is being used for political provocation," he said.
Litvinenko, 43, had told police he believed he had been poisoned on Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another critic of Putin's government. His hair fell out, his throat became swollen and his immune and nervous systems were severely damaged.
Doctors treating him acknowledged they could not explain his rapid decline. They discounted earlier theories that the 43-year-old father of three had been poisoned with the toxic metal thallium.
University College Hospital said Friday it could not comment further because the case was being investigated by police. Police said they were treating the case as an "unexplained death" — but not, yet, a murder.
Litvinenko's friends had little doubt about who was to blame.
They said the former spy, who sought asylum in Britain in 2000, had been seeking to uncover corruption in Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, and to unmask Politkovskaya's killers.
Litvinenko's father Walter said his son "fought this regime and this regime got him."
"It was an excruciating death and he was taking it as a real man," Walter Litvinenko told reporters outside the hospital, his voice choked with emotion.
Goldfarb said the attack bore "all the hallmarks of a very professional, sophisticated and specialist operation."
Another friend, Andrei Nekrasov, said Litvinenko had told him: "The bastards got me, but they won't get everybody."
Litvinenko worked for the KGB and its successor, the FSB. In 1998, he publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill tycoon Boris Berezovsky and spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office. He was later acquitted and in 2000 sought asylum in Britain.
Associated Press writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.