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A German twist in poisoning trail

December 10, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The mystery surrounding the poisoning death of a former Russian spy has veered to Germany, where investigators Saturday found traces of radiation in an apartment connected with a businessman who met the ex-KGB agent on the day he fell ill.

Police said "hints" of radiation were detected in the Hamburg apartment of Dmitry Kovtun's former wife. Traces were also discovered in the nearby suburban home of the ex-wife's mother. Kovtun met with ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko on Nov. 1 in London, where police suspect he was exposed to the radioactive polonium-210 that killed him three weeks later.

Kovtun, a Russian businessman, is reportedly ill in a Moscow hospital.

Authorities said although contamination was detected, they did not find a radiation source in either building.

Police discounted media reports suggesting that Kovtun, who reportedly lived in Germany for 12 years, planned Litvinenko's assassination in Hamburg. No traces of radiation were discovered in Kovtun's apartment, which is in the same building as his ex-wife's in the northern port city's Ottensen neighborhood.

"At the moment, this man has not been accused," police spokeswoman Ulrike Sweden told German radio.

The airline Germanwings said that one of its planes was being tested for polonium-210. A spokesman told reporters that Kovtun flew on the plane from Hamburg to Britain the day he met Litvinenko. Media reports said no contamination was found. Police are investigating whether Kovtun returned to Hamburg after the meeting at London's Millennium Hotel.

The murder investigation has skipped across the continent and led to allegations by Litvinenko's family that intelligence services connected with the Kremlin were behind the plot.

Moscow has begun its own investigation. Russian authorities are expected to question Andrei Lugovoy, a businessman and former KGB colonel who was with Kovtun at the meeting with Litvinenko. He also is ill.

About 30 people were evacuated from Kovtun's building. Police told tenants there was no contamination danger, but asked them to "move out during the time of investigation."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Petra Falkenberg and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin and David Holley in Moscow contributed to this report.

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