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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ex-Russian spy may have been poisoned with radioactive thallium

A former Russian spy may have been poisoned with radioactive thallium, the toxicologist treating him has said, after British counter-terrorism police took over the probe into what happened to him.

Alexander Litvinenko, fighting for his life in intensive care, has seen his white blood cell count drop to zero, a symptom of radioactive thallium, Doctor John Henry said Tuesday outside University College Hospital (UCH) in London.

"It could be radioactive thallium," Henry told reporters, cautioning that all traces of the poison may have disappeared from his body three weeks after he became ill.

Litvinenko, who fell ill on November 1, has been placed under police surveillance at the hospital, officers said Monday, and his case has been transferred to SO15, the Counter-Terrorism Command, indicating the high level of importance given to the case.

Police have been interviewing possible witnesses, including the victim, examining his movements around the time of the poisoning, and closed-circuit television footage.

They were also awaiting the results of toxicology tests.

Litvinenko has been speaking with the detectives investigating what they call a "suspected deliberate poisoning" but Henry angrily refused to speculate on whether it was deliberate, saying it was a political issue.

Though Litvinenko, who has lost his hair and is extremely weak, is talking and occasionally making jokes, it may not be known for a while whether he will survive, Henry warned.

He said radioactive thallium poison would be harder to treat than regular thallium, a toxic metal once used in rat poison, because it damages cells and he may require a transplant of bone marrow, which produces white blood cells which are key to fighting infection.

Friends of Litvinenko, a former lieutenant colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, suspect that the FSB was out to get the outspoken defector.

In Moscow, a spokesman for the foreign intelligence service, the SVR, on Monday denied Russian involvement in the case.

Litvinenko was admitted to Barnet Hospital in north London after taking ill on November 1. He was sent to UCH, which moved him into intensive care late Sunday after his health deteriorated slightly.

He is listed in serious condition.

Pictures from UCH showed him looking gaunt and weak, propped up on pillows wearing a green robe, his bald head tilted slightly and his eyes half open.

He was surrounded by machines and tubes and patches were stuck on his chest.

Alexander Goldfarb, a friend who helped Litvinenko defect to Britain in 2000 and become a British citizen, told reporters that the former spy was in "high spirits" after seeing how much coverage the media was giving his case.

Goldfarb has said Litvinenko had confirmed to him that he had "briefly" met two Russian men for tea in a hotel in central London on November 1 before meeting an Italian academic, Mario Scaramella, a consultant to an inquiry set up by the Italian parliament to investigate KGB activities in Italy.

After meeting the Italian, he began to feel ill. Litvinenko's friends have dismissed suggestions that the Italian was involved.

One of the two Russian men who met with Litvinenko was Andrei Lugovoy, a one-time head of security at a television station owned by controversial Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper reported that Litvinenko met with Lugovoy, whom he knew from Moscow, and another man, identified only as Vladimir, whom he did not.

Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist spokesman living in London, told Tuesday's edition of The Guardian newspaper that he had met Litvinenko on November 1 after his meeting with the Italian.

"He called me and told me over the phone that he will have very important information about who killed Anna Politkovskaya," Zakayev was quoted as saying. "Then I gave him a lift home half an hour after the meeting.

The Sunday Times newspaper said that over lunch in a London sushi bar the Italian academic gave Litvinenko a document with information on the murder of Politkovskaya, a journalist who was reportedly a friend of his.

Berezovsky, after visiting Litvinenko late on Monday, said that the former spy "personally thinks that it was organised in Moscow and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin gave the order to poison him because he is former KGB."

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