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Poisoned spy probe closes in on London hotel

Detectives investigating the death of an ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko turned their attention Friday to a meeting at a London hotel bar where at least 10 people may have been exposed to radioactive polonium-210.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A doorman in a bowler hat. A bellboy buzzing around a busy hotel lobby. A quarantined oak-paneled piano bar.

Investigators focused on London’s Millennium Hotel on Friday, as evidence grew that it was the scene of a sensational crime — the place where someone poisoned former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko with the lethal radioactive substance polonium-210.

Litvinenko huddled over tea and gin there at a meeting last month with two fellow Russians — a gathering that may have led to his death, the hospitalization of a Russian businessman and the deteriorating relations between Britain and Russia.

Litvinenko had dashed to the hotel’s Pine Bar the morning of Nov. 1 to discuss a joint business venture with Andrei Lugovoi, also an ex-Soviet agent, and Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun. Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko, said the former spy sipped tea during the meeting, while Lugovoi said he recalls ordering a bottle of gin.

That afternoon, Litvinenko also met with Mario Scaramella, an Italian security expert, at a Piccadilly sushi bar.

By evening, the 43-year-old Litvinenko was in a London hospital with stomach pains and nausea. He died on Nov. 23 from radiation that caused his hair to fall out and his organs to fail.

Worldwide investigation
The inquiry into Litvinenko’s death has taken investigators across the globe. Scientists assisted police Friday as they combed through the quarantined Millennium Hotel bar. All seven staff working at the bar on Nov. 1 showed evidence of exposure to polonium-210, Britain’s Health Protection Agency said.

Detectives have not confirmed that the bar was where Litvinenko was poisoned. But they consider the snug watering hole, decorated with blond oak and a blue carpet, integral to the case, a police official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the inquiry.

Dr. Michael Clark of the Health Protection Agency said it’s likely the poisoning occurred in the hotel bar, and explained how the three Russians and bar workers may have been exposed.

“People go to bars to drink, eat and smoke — all of which are possibilities for the poisoning,” Clark told The Associated Press on Friday.

‘A little magic capsule’
He said the minuscule dose of polonium-210 required to kill somebody could have been discreetly added to food or drink. “If it was some sort of liquid, it could have been — as in James Bond — a little magic capsule,” he told reporters.

The substance is so dangerous that a lethal dose would occupy a space just 100 micrometers across — slightly larger than the point of a pin. Polonium-210 is available by mail, but one vendor in New Mexico, Bob Lazar, has noted that he sells such small amounts that 15,000 orders would be needed to potentially harm someone.

Around 200 other people who visited the hotel bar on Nov. 1 were being contacted and offered tests, British health officials said. The hotel, in London’s Knightsbridge neighborhood, is only one stop on a radioactive trail that winds through some of the city’s most exclusive districts.

Police have confirmed traces of polonium-210 at about a dozen locations — including three downtown hotels, a soccer stadium and a business district office building used by self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

On Thursday, polonium was discovered at the Parkes Hotel, also in Knightsbridge. Lugovoi stayed there Oct. 16.

Radiation found in Germany
The inquiry stretched to yet another country as German police said Saturday they found traces of radiation in a Hamburg apartment apparently used by Kovtun.

“There are indications that there has been a source of radiation there, but no source of radiation has been found,” said Ulrike Sweden, a spokeswoman for Hamburg police.

While German authorities were in contact with British police, the search was “purely protective” and not part of any investigation against Kovtun, Sweden said. The traces found so far represent no health risk to local residents, she said.

Scaramella was hospitalized last week in London. He said doctors told him he had received five times the lethal dose of polonium-210, although he showed no symptoms. He left the hospital Wednesday.

In Moscow, Kovtun had “developed an illness also connected with the radioactive nuclide (substance),” Russian prosecutors said. Lugovoi was tested for radiation poisoning in a hospital, and Russia’s Interfax news agency said he showed signs of contamination.

Londoners mostly unconcerned
Despite the reports of deadly radiation in London, many residents seemed unconcerned, pointing out that health officials believe there is little threat to the public.

“I’m not too worried. Everything is under control,” said Stephanie Widorini, a 23-year-old student, ducking past the doorway of the Millennium Hotel.

“We’re so geared up for terrorism that it’s just another incident,” said Lesley Driscoll, 58, who works near the hotel.

A meeting between detectives and Lugovoi scheduled for Friday in Moscow failed to take place, lawyer Andrei Romashov said. He said he could not explain why the questioning did not occur, but said his client’s health wasn’t an issue.

Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has said British police would not be permitted to question Lugovoi directly, but they could attend while Russian officers conducted an interrogation.

Chaika said he has opened a criminal case into the murder of Litvinenko and attempted murder of Kovtun.