Britain is monitoring five planes for radiation in an ever widening probe into the poisoning of a former Russian spy that has heightened tensions with Moscow.
British Home Secretary John Reid told parliament on Thursday that radioactive traces had been found at 12 out of 24 locations being checked by police and pledged there would be no political barriers to the probe.
The Kremlin and Russia’s foreign spy service have denied any involvement in the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who became an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Litvinenko, who became a British citizen while living in London, died in the capital a week ago after being poisoned with radioactive polonium 210.
In Moscow, meanwhile, doctors said they believed Yegor Gaidar, a former premier and head of a liberal opposition party, may have been poisoned during a conference last week in Ireland, his spokesman Valery Natarov told The Associated Press.
Gaidar, 50, became violently ill and was rushed to a hospital in Ireland, but was improving in a Moscow hospital Thursday.
'Very low traces' on aircraft
British Airways said three aircraft had been taken out of service as part of the probe. All had flown between Moscow and London, and one is still in Moscow.
The airline said “very low traces” of a radioactive substance had been found on the two planes being held in London.
Reid told parliament scientists were monitoring a fourth aircraft for possible contamination. The plane, a Boeing 737 leased by the Russian carrier Transaero, arrived at London’s Heathrow airport on Thursday morning, he said.
Transaero spokesman Sergei Bykhal said the plane was being held in Britain for checks and that the company would cooperate fully with any official body.
Reid said Britain was also interested in a fifth plane -- a Russian aircraft -- and there could be more involved.
“Those are the five we know of,” he told parliament.
The announcement about the planes and their destinations could rekindle suspicions of a Moscow link to the death of Litvinenko, who himself accused Putin of ordering his murder.
In Moscow, Anatoly Safonov, President Putin’s counter-terrorism adviser, told Reuters: “As we said before, we are open and willing to offer all the help needed.”
“Russia has expressed at the highest levels the political will to cooperate in the fullest way in all aspects of this affair,” Safonov told state television.
Reid told parliament that Moscow had promised cooperation to the “highest level” and that British police would use all the powers they needed to search planes.
“There certainly will be no political prohibition on the police following where the evidence leads them,” he said.
In Britain, thousands of BA passengers sought health reassurances from the airline after the announcement.
BA says the risk to health is low. But it faces a huge task tracing the 33,000 passengers who used the planes over a five-week period. It has set up helplines to give guidance to them.
Reid said Britain would contact the governments of every country where the planes may have landed.
Radiation found at sushi bar, homes, hotel
It was previously announced that radiation had been detected at the sushi bar where Litvinenko met Mario Scaramella, an Italian KGB expert, on the day he fell ill.
Scaramella denied suggestions he had played any role in the poisoning.
“This is all completely absurd,” he told Reuters by telephone, adding: “I am not being investigated or a suspect. I am collaborating with the investigations, which are headed in every other direction.”
Traces of radiation have been detected at Litvinenko’s home, a hotel he visited, the offices of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the offices of Erinys, a security and risk management company.
London police had said they were also searching the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel Piccadilly and another London address.