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British probe of ex-spy's death widens

Investigators are in the U.S. and Moscow, hoping to glean more information from two former KGB agents.

December 04, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — British authorities said Sunday that they were widening their investigation of the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko on the heels of a fresh series of leads into the Russian's murky political and business connections stretching from Moscow to the U.S.

"Over the next few days, I think all of these things will widen out a little from the circle just being here in Britain," Home Secretary John Reid told the "Sunday Live With Adam Boulton" program of Britain's Sky News.

Quoting unidentified law enforcement sources, British news reports said police investigators were in the U.S. interviewing former KGB agent Yuri Shvets, who purportedly has information on a dossier Litvinenko had in his possession relating to the Kremlin's pursuit of figures connected with Yukos Oil Co.

The company was forcibly broken up and in effect renationalized in 2004 after Russian authorities imprisoned its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. One of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's closest lieutenants, KGB veteran Igor Sechin, became board chairman of the state-owned company that later took over Yukos.

In Moscow, British investigators were said to be planning to interview another former KGB agent, Andrei Lugovoy, who recently traveled to London from Moscow and met with Litvinenko on the day of his suspected poisoning. Lugovoy was among those Litvinenko was said to have suspected. "We can't go into detail on operational matters, but obviously the investigators will go wherever needed," a police spokeswoman said Sunday.

Although Litvinenko in the days before his death Nov. 23 accused the Kremlin of responsibility for the large dose of radioactive polonium-210 that is believed to have killed him, police are exploring a growing number of leads, some relating to Litvinenko's investigative work on the shadowy world of Russian and Chechen organized crime, wealthy Russian oligarchs and international politics.

In a first-person account and interview provided to Britain's Observer newspaper, a Russian academic researching a book on Chechnya said she had met Litvinenko several times over the last year and learned he had accumulated secret and damaging dossiers from the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB known as the FSB, on a number of influential figures that he planned to use for blackmailing purposes.

"He told me he was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information about all kinds of powerful people, including oligarchs, corrupt officials and sources in the Kremlin," she said. "He mentioned a figure of 10,000 pounds they would pay each time to stop him broadcasting these FSB documents.

"Litvinenko was short of money and adamant that he could obtain any files he wanted," she said.

The file he was most excited about, she told the Observer, related to the takeover of Yukos Oil by the Russian state -- a mysterious tax sale, never fully understood, under which the bulk of the private firm's assets came under the ownership of state-owned Rosneft oil company.

Former Yukos executive Leonid Nevzlin, who fled Russia to Israel when it became clear he was also facing imprisonment, has said Litvinenko recently flew to Israel to give him potentially incendiary documents relating to Yukos and the Russian authorities.

"Alex had information on crimes committed with the Russian government's direct participation. He only recently gave me and my attorneys documents that shed light on the most significant aspects of the Yukos affair," Nevzlin said in a statement.

Nevzlin said he had passed the documents on to British authorities and had been requested not to discuss their specific contents.

A Moscow court in 2004 issued an arrest warrant charging Nevzlin with organizing a double contract killing and a string of attempted murders, but the former executive says it is part of the same alleged campaign to target Yukos executives and critics of the Putin government.

Meanwhile, an Italian security consultant who also met Litvinenko on Nov. 1, the probable day of the poisoning, Mario Scaramella, released a statement over the weekend saying he believes he and Litvinenko were jointly targeted as a result of information the two had been sharing over the last several months. Scaramella has also tested positive for polonium exposure, though doctors said he did not yet show any symptoms of radiation toxicity.

"I have reason to believe that my poisoning and that of Litvinenko is connected to the information that for months the same Litvinenko was passing me," Scaramella said in a statement released through his lawyer.

Scaramella said tests showed that he had significantly lower traces of the radioactive substance than was the case with Litvinenko, "but they were still considered to be potentially lethal, and therefore capable of killing me."

Scaramella was working with an Italian-based commission looking into possible past connections between Russian intelligence services and Italian politicians. Commission members have said they found evidence that the former Soviet Union ordered the attempted assassination of the late Pope John Paul II in 1981 and the 1978 killing of onetime Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Italian militant group the Red Brigades.

But Italian news reports, some quoting wiretapped conversations between Scaramella and Sen. Paolo Guzzanti, a member of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia party, have suggested that there may also have been political motivations to the inquiry aimed at finding connections, before elections eight months ago, between current center-left Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the KGB.

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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