Polonium that killed ex-spy could be from Russia, but hard to pin blame

Saturday, November 25th 2006, 7:26 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) The radioactive substance that doctors believe killed a Kremlin critic and former Soviet spy could have come from Russia, but nuclear experts said Saturday it would be difficult for investigators to pinpoint blame for the death even if the origin of the toxin is determined.

Alexander Litvinenko, who died in a London hospital Thursday, blamed President Vladimir Putin in a statement signed days before his death.

Polonium-210, the substance doctors believe killed Litvinenko, is usually made artificially in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator, and would likely come from a country with a significant nuclear program. With several nuclear research facilities, Russia fits the bill, and it also has a major space program, another sector in which the element has been used.

``There are many laboratories in Russia where it could be produced,'' said Vladimir Slivyak, a nuclear expert and co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ekozashchita, or Ecodefense.

Alexander Pikayev, a senior analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for Global Economy and International Relations, said polonium isotope would be ``much easier'' to acquire than weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium because it is not considered weapons-grade.

Pikayev expressed doubt that any Russian organization was behind Litvinenko's death, which he said would only hurt Putin's reputation. He suggested that if a Russian intelligence agency had wanted to kill him, it would have been foolish to use polonium because its source could probably be traced.

Slivyak also said British authorities might have a good chance of determining where the polonium was produced. However, he argued the information would be far short of proof of a plot in the country of origin because the substance could have been acquired on the black market.

``To say precisely after this that a concrete intelligence agency or government is involved would be difficult,'' he said.

If Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, wanted to use polonium to kill somebody, ``from the point of the view of the FSB it would be better not to bring it from Russia but to buy it on the black market in Europe'' in order to avoid leaving a trail, Slivyak said.

``Even if it was produced in a Russian laboratory, and even if this is documented, anyway it will be possible to say that this is not true, it's a falsification, or to say, 'We don't know, one gram was lost 10 years ago and we're not to blame,''' he said. ``And in any case, nobody from abroad will be allowed into the laboratory to check, because they'll say it's a closed enterprise, it's related to defense or to the space program.''

Conversely, he said, a country of origin other than Russia would not rule out Russian involvement.

A senior Putin aide suggested Friday that Litvinenko's killing was part of a campaign to discredit Russia and its president, and Russian lawmakers and state-run television networks pointed the finger at bitter Kremlin foe Boris Berezovsky, a more prominent associate of Litvinenko.

Berezovsky has said he suspected Russia's intelligence services were behind the killing.

The government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta also speculated Berezovsky was involved. Among other scenarios, the paper speculated that Berezovsky could have had Litvinenko killed and ``masked the crime to bring suspicion on the FSB'' or that associates of Berezovsky could have had Litvinenko killed as a warning to the tycoon over a business dispute.

It portrayed Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill Berezovsky and later fled to Britain _ as a violent and unintelligent pawn who ``made his choice and drank his poison ... when he betrayed those he worked for.''

Television networks had few reports Saturday on Litvinenko's death, but a news announcer on state-run Channel One singled out what she said was ``a theory (that) Litvinenko poisoned himself.''