MOSCOW (AP) _ A key witness in the radiation death of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko claimed the poisoning took place earlier than is generally believed, according to a newspaper interview published Wednesday.
Andrei Lugovoi, also a former Russian intelligence agent, met with Litvinenko to discuss business at London's Millennium Mayfair Hotel on Nov. 1, a few hours before Litvinenko fell ill.
But Lugovoi said in an interview with the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper that he thinks Litvinenko may have been poisoned two weeks earlier, on the day he and Lugovoi met another business associate, Dmitry Kovtun.
Litvinenko, 43, a former KGB agent and Kremlin critic, died Nov. 23 in London, and doctors said they found the rare radioactive element polonium-210 in his body.
Lugovoi told the tabloid newspaper that he, Kovtun and Litvinenko met in the office of a security company in London Oct. 16. He suggested that they all could have been contaminated during Lugovoi and Kovtun's mid-October visit to London.
After Litvinenko fell ill Nov. 1, Kovtun was found to have suffered exposure to a radioactive substance. Lugovoi is also being checked for radiation contamination.
British authorities, meanwhile, discovered traces of polonium-210 in the security company offices.
``Who told you that the contamination took place on Nov. 1? It took place much earlier, on Oct. 16,'' Lugovoi was quoted as saying by the paper. Lugovoi is reportedly undergoing radiation checks in a Moscow clinic.
Kovtun also claimed in an interview with Germany's Spiegel TV that he must have been contaminated during meetings with Litvinenko and Lugovoi in London in mid-October.
Kovtun was present at the Nov. 1 meeting with Litvinenko and Lugovoi at the Millennium Mayfair Hotel. Litvinenko first started feeling sick that evening. Later, tests showed seven hotel employees were exposed to polonium-210.
The Russian Prosecutor General's office says Kovtun has been diagnosed with radiation poisoning. He is reportedly being treated in Russia.
Both Lugovoi and Kovtun have been questioned in Moscow by visiting Scotland Yard investigators. They have denied involvement in Litvinenko's poisoning.
Meanwhile, German investigators are investigating Kovtun on suspicion that he may have illegally handled radioactive material.
German authorities have found traces of polonium-210 in several locations visited by Kovtun before he traveled to London on Nov. 1.
They say Kovtun flew to Hamburg from Moscow on Oct. 28 and departed for London on Nov. 1. Traces of polonium-210 have been found on the passenger seat of the car that picked up Kovtun from the Hamburg airport.
German officials believe that Kovtun already was contaminated when he arrived in Hamburg.