Radiation found on British planes; authorities seek thousands of passengers

Wednesday, November 29th 2006, 5:38 pm
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Officials found traces of radiation on two British Airways jets as part of an investigation into the poisoning death of a former Russian spy, and the airline appealed Wednesday to tens of thousands of passengers who flew to Moscow or other cities to contact health authorities.

Two Boeing 767s at London's Heathrow Airport tested positive and a third was grounded in Moscow awaiting examination, British Airways said. The airline said ``the risk to public health is low'' but that it was attempting to contact to some 33,000 passengers who have flown on the jets since Oct. 25.

The announcement was the latest twist in a case that has aggravated tensions between Britain and Russia and could strain sensitive negotiations on issues as diverse as energy, NATO expansion, and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

Britain has been careful not to blame the Kremlin for the death of Alexander Litvinenko _ a former KGB agent and fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But criticism of Putin's increasing authoritarianism has intensified since the poisoning _ even within Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet.

The tests were conducted after the British government contacted British Airways on Tuesday night and told the airline to ground the jets and allow investigators looking into Litvinenko's death to examine them for possible radiation.

The search of the planes came as investigators checked places Litvinenko and others who met with him had visited in the weeks before he fell ill Nov. 1. Litvinenko had said before he died that a group of Russian contacts who met him Nov. 1 had traveled to London from Moscow.

Authorities would not say if the radiation on board the two jets was polonium-20. High doses of polonium-210 _ a rare radioactive element usually made in specialized nuclear facilities _ were found in Litvinenko's body, and traces of radiation have been found at six sites in London connected with the inquiry into his death Nov. 23.

All three Boeing 767s had been on the London-Moscow route, British Airways said. In the last three weeks, the planes had also traveled to routes across Europe including Barcelona, Frankfurt and Athens. About 33,000 passengers had traveled on 221 flights on those planes, said Kate Gay, an airline spokeswoman. Three thousand crew and airport personnel had contact with the three planes.

The airline has published the flights affected on its Web site, and advised customers who took the flights to contact a special help-line set up by the British Health Ministry.

``We want to ensure the absolute health of our passengers,'' Gay said, adding that the airline was working closely with police.

British Airways said it would not publish a list of passengers who had used the planes. It said data protection rules meant it could not even if it wanted to.

Following Litvinenko's death, more than 1,300 people called a health hot line over concerns they might be at risk from polonium poisoning, which is deadly in tiny amounts if ingested or inhaled. Sixty-eight have been referred to health authorities, the Health Protection Agency said. Twenty-one have been referred to a special clinic as a precaution. The tests should take about a week.

Italian security expert Mario Scaramella, who was one of the last people to meet with Litvinenko before the former spy fell ill, said tests cleared him of radioactive contamination.

Scaramella came from Rome and met Litvinenko at a sushi bar in London on Nov. 1 _ the day the former intelligence agent first reported the symptoms.

``I am fine,'' Scaramella told The Associated Press by telephone. ``I am not contaminated and have not contaminated anybody else.''

Scaramella returned to London to undergo tests and talk with the police Tuesday. He said he is in security protection and refused to say where he was. He said he had been cleared of any involvement in Litvinenko's death.

More than three dozen staff at the two hospitals that treated Litvinenko will be tested for radioactive contamination, Britain's Health Protection Agency said.

The agency said 106 staff at Barnet General Hospital and University College Hospital had been assessed for possible exposure, and 49 would have their urine tested.

On his deathbed, the 43-year-old Litvinenko blamed Putin for his poisoning. Putin has strongly denied the charge.

Blair said police were determined to find out who was responsible for Litvinenko's death.

``The police investigation will proceed, and I think people should know that there is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way of that investigation,'' the prime minister said. ``It is obviously a very, very serious matter indeed. We are determined to find out what happened and who is responsible.''

Media reports in Britain and Russia on Wednesday said that Litvinenko had been engaged in smuggling nuclear substances out of Russia.

The Independent newspaper reported that Litvinenko told Scaramella on the day he fell ill that he had organized the smuggling of nuclear material for his former employers at Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB. The newspaper reported that Litvinenko said he had smuggled radioactive material to Zurich in 2000.

But Scaramella told the AP that he had been misquoted by the newspaper.

``He (Litvinenko) wanted to see me because he knew about smuggling of nuclear material, but as far as I know he was never involved in nuclear smuggling,'' he said.

Scaramella said he showed Litvinenko e-mails from a confidential source identifying the possible killers of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and listing other potential targets for assassination _ including himself and Litvinenko.