FBI joins British investigation of poisoned spy

Thursday, November 30th 2006, 7:44 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ The FBI is joining the British probe into the poisoning death of a Kremlin critic, the agency announced Thursday as investigators found traces of radiation at a dozen sites in Britain and a former Russian prime minister reported symptoms consistent with poisoning.

British authorities requested the involvement of the FBI, agency spokesman Richard Kolko said. FBI experts in weapons of mass destruction will assist with some of the scientific analysis, he said.

There is no suspected link to the U.S. in an investigation that extends to five airliners and locations from London to Moscow. Russian officials said radiation levels were normal on two suspect Russian jets and appealed to British officials for information on how to test Russians who traveled aboard the two British Airways planes on which radiation has so far been detected.

Yegor Gaidar, who served briefly as prime minister in the 1990s under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, vomited and then fainted during a conference in Ireland on Nov. 24, a day after ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning. Doctors treating Gaidar in Moscow believe he was also poisoned, said his spokesman, Valery Natarov.

While Litvinenko was a fierce critic of the Kremlin who during his waning hours blamed President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning, Gaidar, one of the leaders of a liberal opposition party, is a figure with little influence in today's Russia whose moderate criticism of the Kremlin has focused on economic issues.

Gaidar's illness has added strands to a growing web of speculation in Russia over the death of Litvinenko and the Oct. 7 killing of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Some critics see the hand of hard-liners in the country's ruling elite, while Kremlin backers have suggested a murder plot by self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky to blacken the government's reputation.

Andrei Lugovoy, another former KGB spy who met with Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, served as Gaidar's bodyguard at one point. But there was no other immediate link with Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a rare radioactive element called polonium-210.

The former Russian prime minister's daughter, Maria, said Putin had called her father on the phone to inquire about his health and wish him a smooth recovery.

Gaidar, 50, was feeling better Thursday, according to Natarov. ``His condition is stable and improving. Doctors say there is no threat to his life at the moment.''

An autopsy on Litvinenko was to be conducted Friday. Since he became sick a month ago, the story behind the former spy's poisoning has riveted the world with twists and turns like that out of a James Bond film.

The planes were searched because Litvinenko said before he died that a group of Russian contacts who met with him on Nov. 1, the day he later fell ill, had traveled to London from Moscow.

Polonium is lethal when swallowed, with the power to destroy the human body's DNA. But because it doesn't penetrate the skin, it is easy to transport _ even across national borders.

Three British Airways jets _ two at London's Heathrow airport and one in Moscow _ were grounded this week. So far, traces of radiation have been found on the two BA aircraft in London. The Health Protection Agency said passengers on one of the two planes, G-BZHA, had not been put at risk, but officials were still monitoring the possible exposure of passengers on the other, G-BNWX.

Two Russian aircraft were also being investigated. Russian Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Natalia Lukash said the ministry tested two Transaero Boeing-737s on Thursday at the airline's request, and found that radiation levels were within the norm. She did not say what routes the planes had been traveling.

The reach of the investigation touched tens of thousands who had been passengers on the three BA jets. Some 33,000 passengers and 3,000 crew and airport personnel had contact with the 221 flights on the three British planes.

About 5,500 passengers flooded hot lines to discuss possible symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning, and a special page set up by British Airways to disclose information had 60,000 hits.

It was unclear how the traces of radiation found their way on board, but Home Secretary John Reid sought to reassure anxious airline passengers who were wondering whether they were at risk.

``It's a very low risk indeed,'' Reid said.

A dozen sites _ including the planes _ in Britain have showed traces of radioactivity, Reid said. Another dozen sites were investigated and some had been cleared. Authorities have refused to say what type of radiation was found.

So far, 24 people who may have been exposed to polonium-210 have been referred to specialist clinics but the 29 urine tests conducted so far have all been negative, the HPA said.

Reid insisted that all of the polonium-210 in Britain was accounted for _ and the question remains of how the rare radioactive element found its way here.

A top Russian health official, Gennady Onishchenko, said the state consumer protection agency he heads has appealed to British authorities for information that would help it conduct unspecified measures _ presumably tests _ among Russians who have traveled aboard the planes in which radiation was detected, the Interfax news agency reported.

Onishchenko said that passengers returning from Britain would be monitored at Moscow airports and that tests of its two major international airports, Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, revealed no radioactive contamination, Interfax reported.