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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Radioactive Agent Eyed in Spy Poisoning

Doctors examining a former Russian spy said Tuesday that radioactive substances might have been used in the poisoning of Col. Alexander Litvinenko, who lies critically ill in an intensive care ward.

Doctors had earlier identified thallium _ a colorless, odorless heavy metal lethal in doses of as little as one gram _ as the likely cause of Litvinenko's illness. Dr. John Henry, an eminent toxicologist who has visited Litvinenko several times in the hospital, said a radioactive substance may have been involved.

University College Hospital, which is treating Litvinenko, said a poison other than thallium may have caused his illness, and also suggested that a radioactive substance might be responsible.

Dr. Amit Nathwani, a member of the team treating the former KGB officer, said "the levels of thallium we are able to detect are not the levels we expect to see in toxicity."

Henry, who is not affiliated with University College Hospital but who treated the dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, offered a number of possibilities to explain Litvenenko's symptoms, which include hair loss and damage to the immune system and vital organs.

Henry said Litvinenko may have been given thallium alongside a second drug or in combination with a radioactive substance, or poisoned with radioactive thallium. Radioactive thallium is commonly used in hospitals, injected into the bloodstream to act as a tracer during heart scans.

The Metropolitan Police, whose anti-terrorist unit is leading the investigation into the poisoning of Litvinenko, 43, said they were continuing to piece together his movements Nov. 1, the day he became ill.

Litvinenko remained under armed guard Tuesday, the victim of what his friends and fellow dissidents called an assassination attempt by the Russian government and the KGB's successor organization the FSB, which he has accused of human rights abuses and corruption.

On the day he claims to have been poisoned, he met with two Russians before dining at a sushi restaurant with an Italian security expert. The Italian, Mario Scaramella, said Tuesday he had met Litvinenko to show him e-mails from a confidential source identifying the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist and Kremlin critic who was gunned down Oct. 7 at her Moscow apartment building.

Scaramella said the e-mails listed other potential targets for assassination _ including himself and Litvinenko.

Russia's foreign intelligence agency have strongly denied involvement in the attack on Litvinenko and a Kremlin spokesman dismissed allegations against Russia as "nothing but sheer nonsense."

Doctors earlier gave Litvinenko a 50 percent chance of survival. Nathwani said he was "seriously ill but stable" in the hospital's intensive care unit.

Litvinenko left Russia for Britain six years ago and has been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin ever since, most recently investigating the death of Politkovskaya.

"Somebody has asked me directly, who is guilty of Anna's death? And I can directly answer you: It is Mr. Putin, president of the Russian Federation," Litvinenko told the Frontline media club in London in October.

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