Italian academic in London for radiation tests in ex-Russian spy's poisoning case

Tuesday, November 28th 2006, 10:06 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ An Italian academic who met with a former Russian spy the day he fell ill with radiation poisoning was being tested for contamination and was under security protection Tuesday in London, as the unsolved death cast a shadow over Anglo-Russian relations.

Mario Scaramella told The Associated Press he was in London to cooperate with the police investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who died Nov. 23 after being poisoned with a radioactive element. Scaramella said he was to be tested for traces of the poison, polonium-210.

Scaramella, a security expert who has investigated KGB activity, declined to say whether he would be questioned by police.

As British officials cautioned against jumping to conclusions about who was responsible, Prime Minister Tony Blair said police were determined to solve the mystery of Litvinenko's death.

``The police investigation will proceed, and I think people should know that there is no diplomatic barrier to that investigation,'' Blair told reporters during a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark.

High doses of polonium-210 _ a rare radioactive element usually manufactured in specialized nuclear facilities _ were found in Litvinenko's body. In a deathbed accusation, the former KGB spy and Kremlin critic blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning. Putin has strongly denied the charge, and on Tuesday Russia's top nuclear official said his country tightly controls all polonium exports.

The nuclear official, Sergei Kiriyenko, also ruled out that the polonium linked to Litvinenko's death could have been stolen from a production facility in Russia.

``The controls are very tough,'' he said.

Blair's spokesman, briefing reporters on customary condition of anonymity, said the prime minister had yet to speak to Putin about the case, but had not ``shirked from expressing our concerns about certain aspects of human rights in Russia.''

Three people are being tested for possible exposure to polonium-210, which is deadly in tiny amounts if ingested or inhaled. Home Secretary John Reid told lawmakers Monday that the tests were a precaution and there was little risk to public health.

``The nature of this radiation is such that it does not travel over long distances, a few centimeters at most, and therefore there is no need for public alarm,'' Reid said.

Detectives were retracing Litvinenko's steps on the day he claimed he had been poisoned, searching a growing list of London sites for any sign of the radioactive element.

Traces have been found at six sites, including a building that houses an office of Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled Russian billionaire and mentor to Litvinenko.

Litvinenko's friend and spokesman Alex Goldfarb told Sky News that Litvinenko had stopped at Berezovsky's office after leaving a nearby sushi bar where he met with Scaramella on Nov. 1, the day he fell ill. Berezovsky declined comment.

Polonium-210 also was found in a building in the posh Mayfair neighborhood that houses Erinys UK Ltd., an international security and risk management company.

Erinys confirmed that Litvinenko had visited the office ``on a matter totally unrelated to issues now being investigated by the police'' and said none of its staff was ill. It declined to elaborate.

Police also have found traces of radiation at a bar in London's Millennium Hotel, a branch of Itsu Sushi restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, Litvinenko's house in North London and a section of the hospital where he was treated after he fell ill.

Sky News reported Monday evening that police also were searching a second building in London's Mayfair section. Police refused to comment.

Although an autopsy has not started yet because of concerns over radioactivity, an inquest into Litvinenko's death was expected to begin Thursday at a coroner's court. The opening of it is a legal formality, and such inquests are almost always adjourned immediately, sometimes for months.

Coroner's inquests in Britain are meant to determine the cause of death, but they sometimes cast blame.

The ex-spy told police he believed he was poisoned Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another critic of Putin's government.

London police said they were investigating the case as a ``suspicious death'' rather than murder. They have not ruled out the possibility that Litvinenko may have poisoned himself.