London hospital moves ex-Russian spy to intensive care, Kremlin denies involvement

Monday, November 20th 2006, 8:51 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ A former Russian spy who was poisoned has been moved to an intensive care unit after his condition deteriorated slightly, and a senior Kremlin spokesman on Monday dismissed as ``sheer nonsense'' allegations that the Russian government was involved in harming him.

Former KGB and Federal Security Service Col. Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken Kremlin critic, was under armed guard at a London hospital after apparently being given the deadly poison thallium _ a toxic metal found in rat poison.

Litvinenko ``remains in a serious condition but last night there was a slight deterioration in his condition and he was transferred to intensive care as a precautionary measure,'' University College Hospital said.

Litvinenko, who had been looking into the killing of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, told reporters last week that he fell ill Nov. 1 following a meal at a sushi restaurant in London with a contact who claimed to have details about the murder.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press that any suggestion of Russian government involvement in Litvinenko's poisoning was ``nothing but sheer nonsense.'' He added that he would not comment on the poisoning itself.

Litvinenko has told reporters that the Federal Security Service, known by its Russian initials FSB, still operates a secret Moscow poisons laboratory dating from the Soviet era. He was one of several former Russian intelligence officers to accuse Moscow of being behind the dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during his 2004 election campaign.

Alexander Goldfarb, who helped Litvinenko flee to Britain in 2000, said it is possible the thallium that sickened Litvinenko was sprinkled into his drink during a meeting at a central London hotel on Nov. 1 before he went to the restaurant.

Goldfarb said the former spy told him more details on Monday morning about the day he was poisoned during a telephone conversation from his hospital bed.

Litvinenko briefly met two men from Moscow _ one of whom was a former KGB officer who he knew _ for tea at the hotel, Goldfarb said

``I called Alexander in hospital ... he told me it is true, on that day, before meeting the Italian, he met with two Russians,'' Goldfarb said, adding Litvinenko had not previously met the second man.

Litvinenko told police about the two men, he said.

Earlier on Monday, Goldfarb told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that the former agent was poisoned because of his opposition to the Russian regime.

``It's very difficult to imagine the president's ordered the killing, it's true, and nobody's saying that (President Vladimir) Putin personally ordered it, though it's very likely,'' Goldfarb told the BBC.

Oleg Gordievsky, a former senior KGB agent who defected to Britain in the mid-1980s, alleged in an interview with The Times newspaper that those who tried to kill Litvinenko would have had to have obtained permission ``from the top'' for the operation.

Gordievsky alleged the attack was carried out by a former agent who was recruited from prison by the FSB, the newspaper reported.

Police said a specialist crime unit began an investigation Friday into how Litvinenko may have been poisoned. No arrests had been made, said a Scotland Yard spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with force policy.

Britain's Press Association identified the Italian contact Litvinenko met at the restaurant as Mario Scaramella, an academic who has helped investigate KGB activity in Italy during the Cold War. Scaramella could not immediately be reached for comment.

Politkovskaya, who had written critically about abuses by Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces fighting separatists in Chechnya, was gunned down Oct. 7 inside her Moscow apartment building. Her attackers have not been found.

Politkovskaya herself had alleged that she had been deliberately poisoned to prevent her from covering the 2004 seizure of a school in southern Russia by Islamic separatists. She fell ill, she said, after drinking a cup of tea.

A doctor treating Litvinenko told the BBC that tests showed he had been poisoned by thallium.

Dr. John Henry, a clinical toxicologist who also treated Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko after his poisoning in 2004, told the BBC that thallium can cause damage to the nervous system and organ failure, and that just one gram can be lethal.

Litvinenko joined the KGB counterintelligence forces in 1988, and rose to the rank of colonel in the FSB. He began specializing in terrorism and organized crime in 1991, and was transferred to the FSB's most secretive department on criminal organizations in 1997.