More radioactive sites are found in London

Posted in Europe | 30-Nov-06 | Author: Sarah Lyall, Alan Cowell and S| Source: International Herald Tribune

A British airways jet prepares to land at London's Heathrow airport.

LONDON: The scope of an investigation into the poisoning of a former K.G.B. agent widened Thursday as the British government announced that more locations of contamination had been found.

"To date, around 24 venues have or are being monitored and experts have confirmed traces of contamination at around 12 of these venues," the British home secretary, John Reid, told Parliament.

The locations include the home of the former agent, Alexander V. Litvinenko; a sushi bar in Piccadilly; a hotel in Mayfair, and the office of the exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky.

Litvinenko fell ill from a radioactive poison, polonium 210, that doctors say killed him. He died in a London hospital last week, and an autopsy is to be carried out on Friday.

Litvinenko was a harsh critic of the Kremlin. In his last days, he accused the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, of ordering his killing, a charge that Moscow has dismissed.

The case, which has taken on cold war overtones, has clouded relations between Britain and Russia. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government was "determined to find out what happened" and stressed that "there is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way of that investigation." The case took a bizarre twist when British Airways said that traces of radiation had been detected Wednesday on jets that flew between London and Moscow, establishing a possible Russian link and indicating that more than 30,000 people might have been exposed to the radiation. The airline on its Web site.

The airline said tests had found "very low traces" of radioactivity so far on two of three Boeing 767s, which were singled out because the police suspected that passengers included people linked to the investigation. At least one of the planes flew between London and Moscow days before Litvinenko fell ill.

British Airways said in a statement Thursday that the three Boeing 767s were still out of service. Two of the aircraft were at Heathrow and the third remained in Moscow awaiting necessary clearance to return to the United Kingdom, it said.

The two BA planes that had traces of radioactivity were among the 12 confirmed locations that Reid referred to Thursday. He told the British parliament that a fourth aircraft at Heathrow airport and a fifth plane in Russia were also investigated.

The authorities did not say what substance was detected, but said the radiation posed little danger to the public. Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, said in a television interview Wednesday that the three airplanes had made 221 flights, including trips to and from Moscow, since late October, carrying 33,000 people.

The airline said that, including more than 40 flights in both directions between London and Moscow, the planes had been used in flights between London and destinations including Athens, Frankfurt, Madrid, Istanbul, Stockholm, Düsseldorf, Barcelona, and Larnaca, Cyprus. The flights took place between Oct. 25 and Nov. 29, according to the airline.

While the airline said it had been told "the risk to the public is low," it said it would contact all the passengers on the flights. Walsh encouraged them to consult health authorities if they had any concerns, adding that some 3,000 British Airways staff members would also be checked for radiation.

"The advice that we have is that the risk to public health is actually very, very low," he said. "But I think it's only right that we identify the flights that have been involved and make the information available to the customers." It is impossible to know the exact level of the health risk, if any, as the airline released no information about what substance was detected or the level of the radiation. Radiation from polonium 210 is considered dangerous to human health only if particles of the rare substance are inhaled or ingested or otherwise enter the body. Since its radiation cannot penetrate the skin, an accidental exposure aboard an airplane is likely to prove insignificant.

According to Litvinenko's supporters, he began to feel ill on Nov. 1, the same day he met an Italian contact in a sushi bar and two Russian men - including a former K.G.B. colleague - in a five-star hotel. Traces of radiation have been found in those and other places visited by Litvinenko on that day, according to the police.

According to the British Airways statement, however, eight of the Moscow trips flown by the three planes being examined took place before Nov. 1.

It was the first time that a physical link has been suggested with Moscow, and the first time that traces of radioactivity dating before Nov. 1 have been found. That could suggest that Litvinenko had ingested or breathed radioactive material before Nov. 1.

It was not clear how the traces of radioactivity got onto the British Airways planes or whether polonium 210 had been found.

Last Friday, Andrei Lugovoi, a former K.G.B. associate of Litvinenko, denied in a radio interview that he or a colleague, Dmitri Kovtun, had any part in poisoning him when they met him in London on Nov. 1.

Speaking on Ekho Moskvy, an independent Russian radio station, Lugovoi said that he and Kovtun had met Litvinenko in a hotel on that day and had discussed business for 20 to 30 minutes.

Lugovoi later returned to Moscow but it was not immediately known how he had flown there.

An Italian consultant, Mario Scaramella, who met Litvinenko on Nov. 1 in the sushi bar, said Wednesday that he had been tested for radiation and had been cleared. Britain's Health Protection Agency said late Wednesday that 49 people working at two hospitals where Litvinenko was treated had been asked as a precaution to provide urine samples to establish whether they had been contaminated.