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Friday, December 15, 2006

Polonium Poisoning Could Be Linked to Nuclear Smuggling

The death of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko after exposure to polonium 210 might be connected to nuclear smuggling, RIA Novosti reported yesterday (see GSN, Dec. 11).

Litvinenko reported feeling ill on Nov. 1 in London, shortly after meeting with former colleague Dmitry Kovtun. He died on Nov. 23.

Kovtun himself is being treated for radiation poisoning. Authorities in Germany have found radiation traces in multiple locations that Kovtun visited between Oct. 28 and Nov. 1, and suspect that he might be involved in nuclear smuggling, RIA Novosti reported.

“Alongside several other versions behind this crime, we are seriously considering the possibility that Litvinenko’s death could have been connected to the illegal trade in nuclear materials,” a police official told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

German officials estimated the value of the polonium dose used to poison Litvinenko at $25 million.

Russian press outlets have speculated that Litvinenko, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might have been aiding Chechen separatists in producing a radiological “dirty bomb.”

“We know that there has been a demand for nuclear materials in terrorist circles for several years,” the German police source said. “So we are carefully watching these circles now.”

Investigators have not verified any black market offers for polonium 210 due to its high cost, the official said (RIA Novosti, Dec. 13).

Authorities in the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany are investigating Litvinenko’s death. Interpol has been brought in to help coordinate the investigations, Reuters reported.

Litvinenko is believed to have been investigating the shooting death of Russian journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya. In a deathbed statement, he accused Putin of involvement in his poisoning. The Kremlin has rejected that claim, Reuters reported (Christian Lowe, Reuters/Washington Post, Dec. 12).

The exact time and place of Litvinenko’s poisoning remains in question.

On Nov. 1, he met with Kovtun and former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi at the Pine Bar of the Mayfair Millennium Hotel in London. He also ate sushi that day with an Italian security consultant, USA Today reported yesterday. Traces of radiation have been found at both sites.

Radiation has also been found at Litvinenko’s home, on three British Airways jets that fly between Moscow and London, and in the London offices of exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, an associate of the former spy (Tumposky/Nichols, USA Today, Dec. 13).

Seven employees of the Pine Bar were found to have low levels of radiation contamination, the New York Times reported last week (Cowell/Myers, New York Times, Dec. 8).

Kovtun in recent interviews has claimed that he and Litvinenko suffered radiation poisoning during meetings in mid-October with Lugovoi, the Associated Press reported. British investigators have questioned both men, who deny any involvement in the death (Maria Danilova, Associated Press/Washington Post, Dec. 13).

Berezovsky has also alleged that Putin was behind Litvinenko’s poisoning, USA Today reported. Other theories are that it was carried out by rogue Russian spies or that Berezovsky himself ordered the murder in order to pin the blame on Putin (USA Today).
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