Poisoned: Spy who quit Russia for Britain
Published on 21/11/2006
Poisoned: Spy who quit Russia for Britain
By David Leppard
SCOTLAND YARD is investigating a suspected plot to assassinate a former Russian spy in Britain by poisoning him with thallium, the deadly metal.
Aleksander Litvinenko, who defected to Britain six years ago, is fighting for his life in a London hospital. A toxicology test at Guy’s hospital last Thursday confirmed the presence of the odourless, tasteless poison.
A medical report obtained by The Sunday Times shows that he has three times the maximum limit in his body, a potentially fatal dose. It is as yet unclear how the poison was administered, but on the day he became ill his family say he had a meal with a mysterious Italian contact.
Friends of Litvinenko, a former lieutenant-colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), are convinced that he is the victim of a murder attempt by former colleagues. They regard it as similar to the plot in which Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, was killed in 1978 with a poison-tipped umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in London.
Scotland Yard detectives have been liaising with consultants at Barnet hospital, north London, who have been treating Litvinenko since the poisoning on November 1, the anniversary of his defection.
A police spokesman confirmed an inquiry had been launched last week: “The Specialist Crime Directorate are investigating a suspicious poisoning.”
Supplies of thallium in Britain are highly restricted and cases of poisoning are extremely rare. One gram is enough to kill even the fittest of men and Litvinenko, 43, has all the symptoms of the poison, which can be diagnosed only after at least two weeks.
He has kidney damage, is constantly vomiting and has lost all his hair. He has also suffered severe damage to his bone marrow and an almost total loss of white blood cells which are vital to the immune system.
Doctors say these latter symptoms could suggest the presence of a second unknown agent in a potentially lethal “cocktail”.
In an interview last week at his bedside in the cancer ward of Barnet hospital, where he was being treated under a different name, Litvinenko said he believed it was a murder plot to avenge his defection.
“They probably thought I would be dead from heart failure by the third day,” he said. “I do feel very bad. I’ve never felt like this before — like my life is hanging on the ropes.”
Litvinenko claimed political asylum in 2000 and was granted British citizenship last month. One of the highest profile defectors from the FSB, he is on the wanted list in Moscow where he has made powerful enemies with his criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
Last month Litvinenko received an unexpected e-mail from a man he knew as Mario, an acquaintance he had made in Italy. The Italian said he wanted to meet him in London because he had some important information about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian investigative journalist who was killed in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.
Litvinenko was a friend of Politkovskaya, one of the Kremlin’s most powerful critics, particularly over the war in Chechnya.
“We met at Piccadilly Circus,” said Litvinenko. “Mario said he wanted to sit down to talk to me, so I suggested we go to a Japanese restaurant nearby.
“I ordered lunch but he ate nothing. He appeared to be very nervous. He handed me a four-page document which he said he wanted me to read right away. It contained a list of names of people, including FSB officers, who were purported to be connected with the journalist’s murder.
“The document was an e-mail but it was not an official document. I couldn’t understand why he had to come all the way to London to give it to me. He could have e-mailed it to me.”
After the meeting the Italian had simply “disappeared”, although Litvinenko emphasised that he was not in a position to accuse him of involvement in his poisoning.
That night Litvinenko became violently ill. His wife Marina, 44, said: “At first I thought it was just a bug but then he started vomiting. But it wasn’t normal vomiting.”
She said her husband is a fit man who often runs three miles a day. He had no previous record of medical problems. He was admitted to Barnet hospital on the third day. Nine days ago, his condition suddenly deteriorated and he lost all his hair. Doctors say Litvinenko has not eaten for 18 days and is receiving what little nourishment he can take via an intravenous drip.
Russian and East European agents have a history of using poisons to attack their enemies. Markov was poisoned with ricin and died three days later.
More recently Victor Yuschenko suffered facial disfigurement after being poisoned with suspected dioxin as he campaigned for the presidency of Ukraine.
Litvinenko, a specialist in fighting organised crime, came to prominence in 1998 after he accused the Russian authorities of trying to kill Boris Berezovsky, a tycoon close to Boris Yeltsin, who was then president.
He claims he was drummed out of the spy agency and subjected to harassment to punish him for speaking out. He was arrested twice on what he says were trumped up charges. Although he was acquitted, he spent months in Moscow prisons.
In 2000 he was arrested for a third time on charges of faking evidence in an investigation. Friends told him he was unlikely to escape lightly under the Putin regime.
Litvinenko decided to flee before he was arrested. Stripped by the authorities of his passport, he ended up in Turkey where he joined Marina and their son Anatoly, who had flown from Moscow on tourist visas. They came to Britain and claimed asylum. He has been a thorn in Moscow’s side ever since.
Marina said she was hoping to find a bone marrow donor to save her husband’s life.
Doctors have moved him to another hospital offering more specialised treatment and police have taken his family into protective custody.