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Poison victim is Kremlin critic

The former KGB agent was looking into the slaying of a journalist.

November 21, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — A former KGB agent who had accused the Russian security services of involvement in several killings was transferred to intensive care Monday after British doctors confirmed he had been the victim of a deadly nerve poison.

Alexander Litvinenko, 41, a Kremlin critic who has lived in Britain for several years, suffered a slight setback over the weekend and remained in serious condition, hospital officials in London said. A toxicologist said he had tested positive for thallium, a tasteless, odorless chemical that has been used in political killings in Iraq and can be lethal in doses as small as a dash of salt.

An associate of the former spy said Litvinenko fell ill on Nov. 1, hours after meeting for tea in London with a former KGB agent who owns a private security agency in Moscow.

The meeting came just before Litvinenko met with another contact who provided him with documents he had been told could shed light on the slaying of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a longtime critic of Russia's war in Chechnya who was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment house in Moscow on Oct. 7.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Former KGB agent: An article in Section A on Nov. 21 about Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who was poisoned in London, said he met a former spy for tea and later had sushi with another contact. Investigators said Litvinenko had sushi first and tea later in the afternoon.

"I think someone very high up in the Moscow security services ordered this hit," said Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko's and director of the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, which was founded by exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who is a critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

A Russian lawmaker accused Berezovsky of engineering the poisoning scandal, and a Kremlin spokesman dismissed the allegation of government involvement as "sheer nonsense."

The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service said in a statement that Soviet-era intelligence agencies and their successors had not carried out "operations aimed at the physical liquidation of unwelcome personalities" since the "elimination" of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera in 1959.

Two Russian intelligence agents were convicted in Qatar in 2004 for the car-bomb slaying of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. They were returned to Russia and later freed.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko still has a badly scarred face and painful nerve damage from near-fatal dioxin poisoning during a presidential campaign in which he advocated freeing Ukraine from Russia's sphere of influence.

A Saudi-born financier of the Chechen resistance, Omar ibn Khattab, died in 2002 after opening a poisoned letter. Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, was blamed in the killing.

And Politkovskaya, whose slaying Litvinenko was reportedly investigating when he fell ill, became sick after drinking what she claimed was poisoned tea while traveling to Beslan during the 2004 siege of a school by Ingush and Chechen militants.

Stephen Rowley, a spokesman at University College Hospital in London, said Litvinenko, who was under armed guard and being questioned by police, had been transferred to intensive care as a precaution.

Photographs released Monday night showed a thin, wan-looking man with no hair. Hair loss is a characteristic symptom of thallium poisoning.

"You've seen the picture of him. He looks like a ghost. To my view, he's worse today than he was yesterday," Goldfarb said.

The Metropolitan Police Service said it was awaiting the results of toxicology tests but was investigating a "suspected deliberate poisoning."

Clinical toxicologist John Henry, who examined Litvinenko, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the presence of thallium had been confirmed in a blood test. The toxic metal, an ingredient in some forms of rat poison, causes progressive vomiting and diarrhea, and is followed by painful nerve damage and possible injury to vital organs, including the heart.

Litvinenko, who gave a few interviews before getting sicker, said he had met with a former acquaintance from the KGB, then had lunch at a sushi restaurant with another acquaintance, Italian academic Mario Scaramella, who had e-mailed Litvinenko and told him he had knowledge of Politkovskaya's killers.

Litvinenko said the document he received contained the names of some Federal Security Service officers.

Several Russian news reports said Scaramella had met frequently in the past with Viktor Kolmogorov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service, apparently in connection with the investigation of former Russian spies in Italy.

"I ordered the food, and he took just water and was hurrying me," Litvinenko told Moscow's Kommersant newspaper. "From the text, I understood that the mentioned people could have really arranged the murder. We parted nearly at once. As soon as I got home, I put down the papers and was down."

Scaramella has since contacted the British Embassy in Italy, according to news reports, and has reportedly gone into hiding for his own safety.

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