SCIENCE
Polonium Ploy (Part 1 of 2)
By Dr Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

What was almost never a topic of dinner-table conversation has now become one. And, it involves one particular dinner involving a group of people who resurrected the Cold War days of international intrigue -- people who could have walked out of the shady pages of a cloak-and-dagger book.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB colonel, was one such person. In the late 90’s, Litvinenko had run into problems with FSB (Federal Security Bureau Russia , the KGB successor), for which he was tried, convicted and later conditionally released. Then, in 2001, he escaped to Britain (via Turkey), with the help of a Russia billionaire émigré`, Boris Berezovsky, a long-time Kremlin foe and another escapee, who has been living in London, a person Litvinenko had become friends with in Russia, and for whom he was working since coming to London.
Litvinenko was granted asylum in Britain. He has also recently received British citizenship. On November 1-2, after meeting a group of people over meal and drinks, he suddenly fell ill, and died three weeks later (on 23 November 2006; age 44), in London. All forensic evidence points to radiation poisoning, possibly by eating or drinking something laced with Polonium (Po)-210, a highly radioactive isotope of Po (that ruled out radioactive Thallium, the initially suspected toxic substance involved).
Litvinenko had been investigating the murder in Moscow of an internationally-recognized Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovkaya, a vocal critic of Russian policy in Chechnya , and of Putin himself. She, 48, born actually in New York to parents in Soviet diplomatic core, and a mother of two, was shot to death on an early October evening in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building by a “mysterious thin man with a black baseball hat,” leaving a Makarov pistol and a few spent shells by her side, “the signature,” according to the New York Times, “of a contract killing.” That was just days before she had planned to publish an expose` on Chechen Prime Minister.
Litvinenko’s intriguing life and his recent activities and contacts have been extensively covered in the press, and Scotland Yard and other investigative agencies have been connecting dots to establish a trail back to Moscow . Just a few relevant details here:
At a journalist panel meeting in London (FrontLine Club), investigating Anna Politkovkaya’s death, which Litivinenko attended, he announced he knew Putin did it. Litivinenko has been making trouble for Putin since late 90s when Putin headed KGB. Julia Svetlichnaja, a Russian academic Litvinenko knew, told The Observer (London) that he was short of money, and was threatening (unless paid his demand) to make public some KGB files he had on Russian oligarchs (a blackmail effort).
The day Litvinenko fell ill (November 1), he had two meetings, one at a Central London shushi bar, Itsu, with Mario Scaramella, an Italian lawyer who wanted to give him some document that had death threats against those (including Scaramella and Livinenko) who were investigating Anna’s death; there, Litvinenko ate but Scaramello had nothing. From Itsu, Litvinenko walked over to the Pine bar, stopping on his way by Berezovsky’s office in Mayfair to show him Scaramella’s document. Then, at the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel near the US embassy, he met Andrei Lugovoi, his former KGB friend who had moved into private security business, and Lugovoi’s childhood friend and business partner, Dmitri Kovtun, a former Soviet army officer who had lived in Germany for several years. Litvinenko had met Lugovoi before (Oct 16-17 and Oct 26) at other places, but Litvinenko was meeting Kotvun at the Pine Bar for the first time. Lugovoi who left for Russia on Oct 26, returned to London Oct 31 with a group of Russians to see a soccer match Nov 1, between Russian and London teams.
The nature of business at the Pine bar is unclear, but after the meeting Lugovoi and Kotvun went to the Soccer. Litvinenko had tea, and went home to Muswell Hill in North London. That evening he fell ill, and called his friend and neighbor, Akhmed Zakayev, Foreign Minister of Chenchnya-in-exile, also on FSB’s hit list. After three days of severe stomach pain, he was taken to a North London Hospital and as his condition worsened in the next two weeks, he was moved to the University College Hospital in Central London , where despite extensive treatment, he died on Nov 23. After autopsy, he was buried in a sealed, leak-proof coffin, in Highgate Cemetery, within a few yards of the graves of such diverse notables as Karl Marx, father of communism, and George Eliot, the novelist.
Scotland suspects that Litvinenko was poisoned with Po-210 in Pine Bar, where the seven bar employees have also tested positive. UK Home Secretary John Reid announced (on Nov 30) that traces of radioactivity had been discovered in 12 London locations, as well as two British Airways planes.
Apart from his wife, Marina, those Litvinenko met have all tested positive for Po-210. Though Scaramello was later cleared as a suspect, Lugovoi and Kovtun, now being treated in Moscow hospitals for radiation poising, are under investigation. By the elimination process, the focus has turned to Kovtun, who flew into London from Hamburg (Germany ) where he visited his ex-wife’s apartment and her mother’s place in the suburbs. Traces of Po-210 were found in both places, the two cars he used in Hamburg , and the offices he visited; his ex-wife, her partner, her two children and mother have tested positive. German investigators now suspect he may have brought and transferred radioactivity there. Traces were also found in the British Embassy, Moscow, which Lugovoi had visited earlier, in a security firm (near the Millennium Hotel) that Litvinenko and Lugovoi had visited on an earlier trip to London (Oct 16), and at Sheraton ParkLane Hotel where they had met.
However, the plot now thickens, and some new wrinkles: Both Lugovoi and Kovtun, now reportedly also under treatment for radiation poisoning think of themselves as victims (not suspects/perpetrators). Lugovoi says that he and Litvinenko may have been poisoned on October 16 when both first met and visited a security firm where Po-210 traces have been found later; this firm, Lugovoi did not visit on Nov 1, when the poisoning is widely believed to have occurred. Kovtun says he was poisoned when he met the other two in London . However, Hamburg police report that the BMW which picked up Kotvun on October 28 when he flew in from Moscow also had traces of Po-210 on the passenger-side, suggesting that Kotvun may already have had Po-210 before coming to Hamburg , but not clear how. Another ex-KGB person who heads a security firm, Vyacheslav Sokolenko, denies he was ‘the third man’ at the Nov 1 meeting, but admits to having traveled with Lugovoi to London, stayed at the Millennium Hotel and gone to see the soccer match.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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