Litvinenko Mystery: 'Walking Dirty Bomb' Tells of London Meetings

By Anna Sadovnikova, Hans Hoyng, and Uwe Klußmann

A few days before he was put in quarantine in a Moscow hospital, Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi, believed to be one of Scotland Yard's main suspects in the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, spoke to DER SPIEGEL about his meetings with the former spy.

Svetlana Lugovaya and Dmitry Kovtun in a sauna outside Moscow: pale and green in the face
SPIEGEL TV

Svetlana Lugovaya and Dmitry Kovtun in a sauna outside Moscow: pale and green in the face

Andrei Lugovoi, 40, former KGB agent, currently a kind of mini magnate in the Russian soft drinks industry, is the man British investigators believe left an unmistakeable radiation trail across London.

Wherever the businessman appeared during his almost weekly visits to the capital of the United Kingdom, he left traces of radiation; in planes that brought him to Britain, in the hotels where he stayed, in restaurants and offices where he met contacts.

The Geiger counters even buzzed in the brand new Emirates Stadium where he watched a dull draw between Arsenal London and ZSKA Moscow on that fateful Wednesday, November 1.

Scotland Yard's specialists have given clear hints that they regard Lugovoi as the main suspect, the man responsible for the trail of the murder weapon, the isotope polonium-201 which points back to Moscow, where it's not exactly available on the open market -- only eight grams are exported a month.

They don't say so publicly but they think he brought the poison to London. Asked if they regard him as Litvinenko's murderer, they don't answer, of course.

And of course Lugovoi is professing his innocence. But that's not so easy for someone who is presumably surrounded by a whole corona of eastern and western secret service shadows.

He also wanted to give DER SPIEGEL his version of events. It was a complicated undertaking. To meet him we had to go to a small alley in the center of Moscow on the Saturday before last. There was not a soul to be seen until a grey jeep pulled up slowly. The driver and front-seat passenger were both in their mid-30s and identifiable as bodyguards from their build and short haircuts.

They scanned the street and asked us to get in. We drove southwest out of the city. All we were told about our destination was that the journey would take about an hour. After 40 minutes, Moscow seemed far away. We drove past Babushkas carrying buckets of water and old men sitting by the roadside selling apples. Time seems to have stood still here. The car turned into a street called "40 Years of October Revolution".

The jeep stopped at a large iron gate; a uniformed guard let it drive onto the property. In front of the two-storey brick dacha stood Lugovoi wearing a check lumberjack-style jacket. He tried to appear relaxed and introduced his colleague Dmitry Kovtun. An old pal from his army days, also an entrepreneur, "oil and gas" he said, whatever that means.

Kovtun attended the now world-famous meeting with Lugovoi and Litvinenko in London's Millennium Hotel. He is as bald as Litvinenko was when he was lying in intensive care in University College Hospital.

The sauna meeting

Kovtun chain smokes cigarettes. He said he burned himself while lying on a sunbed. That's why he shaved off his hair; otherwise it would have been too painful to stand. Five days later the authorities will announce that Dmitry Kovtun too has been exposed to radiation and taken to a Moscow hospital.

Lugovoi and Kovtun didn't go into the house; instead they headed for a sauna hut some distance away. The dacha was "dirty," said Lugovoi. What did he mean? Contaminated with radiation? Bugged? Or just untidy? Later we saw door handles covered with sticky tape.

Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi during an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio in Moscow, November 23.
REUTERS

Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi during an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio in Moscow, November 23.

We got to the sauna. Lugovoi started out by speaking about his contacts with Litvinenko. He said he met him in the mid-1990s when both were working for the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. It was before Berezovsky had fallen out with Putin and controlled Russia's biggest TV station, ORT. Lugovoi was head of security there and Litvinenko had all kinds of jobs, including a role as assistant to member of parliament Berezovsky, who had been elected to the Duma for the northern Caucasian republic Karachay-Cherkessia.

Then came the big bust-up with Putin and Berezovsky and Litvinenko fled to London.

Lugovoi said he saw Litvinenko again for the first time in October 2004, with Berezovsky in London. He spent 40 minutes with him in a Chinese restaurant during which Litvinenko talked about "how Russia is waging war on the émigrés and the émigrés are waging war on Russia." Lugovoi appeared as though the subject didn't interest him especially.

A year ago Litvinenko rang him again, said Lugovoi. He evidently wasn't doing very well. "He wanted to arrange business deals for me so that he could get money." With a touch of vanity Lugovoi reports how Litvinenko envied him because of how "well positioned" he was, "in which hotels he stayed," and what he spent on shopping.

Then they discussed commission payments and whether Litvinenko should get his money from both business partners or just from him. They agreed on 20 percent per deal arranged, payable by Lugovoi.

The London meetings

The London émigré proceeded to introduce him to security firms, another speciality of Lugovoi's next to lemonade and Kwas, a low-alcohol bread-based beverage. "They were serious companies located in the heart of the city where the rent per square meter is even higher than on Tver Street in Moscow" said Lugovoi.

In the end, he didn't succeed in closing any business deals and, to tell the truth, "Alexander had the contacts but he didn't always know how to behave," said Lugovoi, who recalled with an air of indignation how Litvinenko during a meeting with potential partners kept nervously reminding them not to forget to "transfer £100,000 pounds (€148,000) to us." Lugovoi, a man of the world, said he found that embarrassing.

A policeman walks out of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, London.
AFP

A policeman walks out of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, London.

Dmitry Kovtun attended a meeting on October 16 for the first time. "It was a very successful conversation," he said. After that they went for lunch to the Sushi restaurant Itsu on Piccadilly Circus that a few weeks later would gain world fame, and Litvinenko again got on everyone's nerves. "He behaved in a strange way," recalled Kovtun. "One shouldn't talk politics with him. He just couldn't stop talking about politics."

And Kovtun remembered another thing too. In the sushi bar, Litvenko told his two guests from Moscow: "I won't eat anything, I'm not feeling well. I poisoned myself a few days ago and have been throwing up since then." But he went on to eat something "and he even had an appetite," Kovtun observed.

Then came the meeting on November 1 -- the day on which Scotland Yard believes Litvinenko was poisoned. They hadn't intended to meet, said both Kovtun and Lugovoi.

Kovtun came to London from Hamburg that day. His divorced German wife lives in Hamburg. Last weekend investigators searched her home and found traces of polonium. "We hadn't planned the meeting with Alexander," Kovtun said. "But Litvinenko insisted on seeing his London partners." Lugovoi added: "We met. Only for 30 minutes."

Pale and green in the face

There was a free table in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel when Kovtun and Lugovoi returned from a meeting with the security firm Erynis. Litvinenko came a little later and he appeared to be very excited.

Andrei's wife, Svetlana Lugovaya who was also in the sauna, said: "He looked pale and green in the face and seemed confused."

They all agree that both green tea and gin were drunk in the bar. Kovtun said: "The portions in the West are very small so we ordered four to six glasses of gin but we also drank tea, green tea." Kovtun said he offered Litvinenko alcohol. "In Russia it's bad manners to drink and not offer anything to others."

Litvinenko declined the offer of gin but appears to have said yes to tea. But Kovtun, unlike Lugovoi, said: "I can't remember that clearly today. He came into the bar 10 minutes after us, we'd already had some alcohol, and I paid more attention to my cigar."

Litvinenko arranged an important meeting for the next day and Lugovoi agreed to it. Then they spent some time speaking about other plans before getting up to go to the football match. Lugovoi went up to his room with his family. Kovtun spent another five minutes in the lobby talking to Litvinenko. Looking back, he's not happy at the thought. "We were standing there, unfortunately. Much too close, almost face to face."

That was the last time the two Muscovites saw their fellow Russian. The next morning Litvinenko rang Lugovoi at 7.30 a.m. and said he wouldn't be able to make the meeting. "I'm feeling terribly sick." That evening he rang again and said he had diarrhoea.

Litvinenko photographed in a London hospital shortly before his death.
AFP

Litvinenko photographed in a London hospital shortly before his death.

There were two more telephone calls after that: On November 7 Litvinenko reported that he had been unconscious for almost two days but was feeling better. There was a last conversation on November 13. Lugovoi: I wanted to call him again on November 20. But suddenly my name appeared in connection with the poisoning."

And this connection is getting ever stronger.

Litvinenko died on November 23. Scotland Yard's investigators quickly came to the conclusion that the mysterious constant visitor from Moscow had something to do with it. Since last week they are pretty sure that Litvinenko was poisoned at the meeting in the Pine Bar of the Millennium and not in the Itsu sushi bar a few hundred meters away, where he met his Italian contact Mario Scaramella the same day.

The Italian has traces of polonium but the staff of the restaurant show no contamination. It's a different case with the waiters of the Pine Bar. All seven staff who worked that afternoon have tested positive for polonium.

A walking dirty bomb

Add to that list guests Litvinenko and Kovtun, who himself is suffering from radiation poisoning. Scotland Yard regards Lugovoi with his trail of radiation as a walking dirty bomb.

The suspect, who is now also in a Moscow hospital strictly segregated like his friend Kovtun, can even understand Scotland Yard's view. He offered to testify and he was interrogated by British investigators in Moscow on Monday.

In his interview with SPIEGEL he admitted: "I'm a suitable figure for speculation of this sort. I worked with Berezovsky, I'm a former officer in the security service and a successful businessman today."

At the end of the week before last he didn't know how badly he had been contaminated with polonium, but one thing was already clear: "They found traces of alpha particles on my hands. A lot has been contaminated: my body, my clothing, my office in Moscow, it's on all the surfaces."

Lugovoi sees himself as a victim and said someone was trying to frame him: "I don't rule out that I've been deliberately marked with polonium." And then, at the end of the sauna meeting, the suspect himself laid two trails. One leads to Moscow, where the personal protection specialist says suspects are frequently marked, for example when corruption cases are being investigated.

Lugovoi's second trail leads to London. He points out that he too received documents from Litvinenko, who had often given him "small gifts."

"One could imagine that if something like that was planned a lot of thought was put into it in advance."

Then, back in the role of the intelligence man, he started talking about the decades-old rivalry between the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor FSB on the one side and Britain's MI6 on the other.

The Moscow public prosecutor's office last week launched its own investigation into the Litvinenko case and said it planned to send investigators to London where they would first interview the two well-known Putin opponents Berezovsky and the so-called Chechen foreign minister in exile Ahmed Zakayev, both of whom enjoy the protection of the British government although there are arrest warrants out for both of them in Moscow.

Litvinenko's radiation-contaminated body was buried in London's Highgate cemetery last Thursday. It had a rather peculiar funeral escort made up of exiled oligarchs, secret service people, relatives and devout Islamists.

Opponents and supporters of the claim that Litvinenko converted to Islam on his deathbed out of respect for the Chechen struggle almost came to blows. Wild murder theories mixed up with Islamic prayer.

Not far from Litvinenko lies a great German, by the way: Karl Marx, who is also buried at Highgate.

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