updated 12/14/2006 1:54:13 PM ET 2006-12-14T18:54:13

The head of an organization of former Russian spies was quoted as saying on Thursday Moscow abandoned its policy of assassinating enemies long ago, and that Alexander Litvinenko was probably murdered by criminals.

Former KGB agent Valentin Velichko said fellow former agent Litvinenko, who died in London on Nov. 23 from radiation poisoning, was a traitor but was not killed by Moscow.

“That was long ago. It belonged to the days of Stalin,” Velichko, head of the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence, told Die Welt newspaper in an interview. Millions died under the rule of dictator Josef Stalin.

No ‘department for liquidations’
“In those days there was a special department ... which handled the liquidation of political opponents,” said Velichko, who also heads the Moscow-based Russian nationalist foundation Dignity and Honor.

“In the system of Russia’s secret services there was and is no department for liquidations,” he said.

Velichko said the assassination of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov, killed in London with a poison dart shot from an umbrella in 1978, decades after Stalin’s death, was probably the last one.

Asked if some people in his organization might have wanted to settle scores with Litvinenko, he said: “No. I see (Litvinenko’s murder) as a dispute among criminals.”

But Velichko said Litvinenko had revealed secrets, which “made him a traitor under the law.”

In a statement associates released after his death, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his killing. The Kremlin has denied involvement.

Possible suspect
German police are investigating Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun, a contact of Litvinenko’s, after traces of polonium were found in properties he used in Hamburg.

Kovtun has said he must have picked up traces of polonium from the murdered man when they met in mid-October. That meeting in London was well before Litvinenko fell ill on Nov. 1.

A German prosecutor has said Kovtun could be a possible suspect in the case.

Kovtun was quoted by Russian media as saying he was ready to cooperate with British, German and Russian investigators.

Russian airline Aeroflot said the country’s consumer standards watchdog had decided no more radiation checks were needed on planes that had flown to Hamburg in the last two months, despite requests from German investigators.

“We check all the planes on a continuous basis and nothing untoward was found,” said an Aeroflot spokeswoman.

Hamburg police said they had requested a check on just one plane — the one on which Kovtun flew from Moscow to Hamburg on Oct. 28. The police were still waiting for a response.

Kovtun, who also met Litvinenko on the day he fell ill and who is now in hospital in Moscow, denies any part in Litvinenko’s poisoning.

‘Professionals don’t use polonium’
Police in Hamburg on Thursday rejected a newspaper report Kovtun had been in Berlin earlier this week. Investigating officers still did not have contact with Russian counterparts despite repeated requests for assistance, police said.

Velichko told Die Welt the use of polonium 210 was a crude method of assassination that would not have been used by Russian security services.

“Professionals don’t use polonium,” he said.

Andrei Lugovoy, also at the Nov. 1 meeting in London, said in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper he was cooperating as much as possible with British authorities, who questioned him this week.

“Investigators from Scotland Yard confirmed that I was only being questioned as a witness,” he said.

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