An Italian security expert who met with former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko the day he fell fatally ill has tested positive for the same radioactive substance found in the ex-spy’s body, authorities said Friday. Litvinenko’s wife tested positive as well, a friend said.
The Italian security agent, Mario Scaramella, met with Litvinenko at a sushi bar in London on Nov. 1 — the day the former intelligence agent first reported the symptoms that ultimately led to his death.
The Italian tested positive for polonium-210, the rare isotope found in Litvinenko’s body, according to law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
Litvinenko’s wife, Marine, had been “very slightly contaminated” by the radioactive substance found in her husband’s body, the former agent’s friend, Alex Goldfarb, told The Associated Press. He said she did not have to seek medical treatment.
Home Secretary John Reid confirmed that a member of Litvinenko’s family had tested positive for signs of polonium-210, but he did not name the person. Pat Troop, chief executive of Britain’s Health Protection Agency, said the family member faced a “very small” long-term health risk.
In Ireland, meanwhile, authorities also tested the hospital that treated former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar after he became violently ill during a conference last week — an incident his aides have described as another poisoning.
Dublin hospital risk being assessed
Irish health officials said tests were being carried out to gauge any risks to public health at the Dublin hospital, but they refused to say whether they were searching for traces of polonium.
Litvinenko died Nov. 23 at a central London hospital. Pathologists, wearing protective suits to guard against radiation, began an autopsy Friday.
At the Nov. 1 meeting with Litvinenko, Scaramella — who earlier this week said doctors had cleared him — discussed an e-mail he received from a source naming the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist and Kremlin critic who was gunned down Oct. 7 in Moscow. The e-mail reportedly outlined that he and Litvinenko were also on the hit list.
In a letter released Friday by human rights activists, a former Russian security officer — now jailed — said he had also warned Litvinenko about a government-sponsored death squad that intended to kill him and other Kremlin opponents.
Litvinenko, 43, a Kremlin critic who lived in Britain, died at a London hospital. In a deathbed statement, he blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning — charges the Kremlin rejected as “sheer nonsense.”
“Back in 2002, I warned Alexander Litvinenko that they set up a special team to kill him,” the former security services officer, Mikhail Trepashkin, wrote in the letter dated Nov. 23 — the day of Litvinenko’s death.
The letter was released by rights activists in Yekaterinburg, the center of the Ural Mountains province where he is serving his four-year sentence. Its authenticity could not immediately be confirmed.
A spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service, the KGB successor agency known by its Russian acronym FSB, refused to comment on Trepashkin’s claim.
More in the 'chain of victims'?
Trepashkin was arrested in October 2003 and convicted on charges of divulging state secrets while investigating allegations of FSB involvement in a series of deadly apartment bombings that killed about 300 people in Moscow and two other cities in 1999. The government blamed the explosions on Chechnya-based rebels, but Litvinenko and other Kremlin critics alleged they were staged by authorities as a pretext for launching the current Chechen war.
The FSB, where both Trepashkin and Litvinenko worked, alleged that Trepashkin had been recruited by British agents to collect compromising materials on the explosions with the aim of discrediting the Russian security agency.
Trepashkin said in his letter that after his arrest authorities had put him in a cell contaminated with poisonous chemicals and threatened to kill him.
“Litvinenko and I aren’t the last in this chain of victims of persecution,” he wrote. “Maybe Litvinenko’s death could make you believe in what he was saying.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was ready to answer concrete questions from Britain concerning Litvinenko’s death, Russian news agencies reported.
“When the questions are formulated and sent through the existing channels, we will consider them thoroughly,” Lavrov was quoted as saying in Jordan by the ITAR-Tass news agency. “There have been no such questions yet.”
Former Russian premier being treated
Gaidar, the former Russian premier who fell ill in Ireland, was treated in the intensive care unit at Dublin’s James Connolly Memorial Hospital, which was also being tested Friday for signs of hazardous materials.
Gaidar, 50, who served briefly as prime minister in the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin and is one of the leaders of a liberal opposition party, began vomiting and fainted during a conference in Ireland on Nov. 24 — a day after Litvinenko’s death.
Gaidar’s daughter, Maria, said told AP Television News in Moscow that his life was no longer in danger and he was slowly recovering. Gaidar’s aides believe he may also have been poisoned.
Irish police have launched an inquiry into Gaidar’s illness, but they said the investigation was routine and should not worry the public.
“Tracing the movements of the subject and establishing the facts is the focus” of the investigation, police said in a statement.
Traces of radiation have been found at a dozen sites in Britain and five jetliners were being investigated for possible contamination.
A hotel in Sussex, southeastern England, was briefly evacuated Friday as police and health workers carried out tests for polonium-210. The hotel, set in 186 acres of countryside, had been visited by Scaramella after he met with Litvinenko, authorities said. It was later reopened.
British Airways said Friday that one of its planes that has been parked at a Moscow airport would be flown back to London later in the day for a radiation check. Traces of radiation were found on it and two other aircraft that have traveled the Moscow-London route since Nov. 1, when Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned.
In 1998, Litvinenko publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill the tycoon Boris Berezovsky and spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office. He was later acquitted and in 2000 sought asylum in Britain.
Trepashkin’s letter also mentioned official targeting of Berezovsky.