The Litvinenko Poisoning: Rumors Abound in Litvinenko Murder Mystery

The case of poisoned spy Alexander Litvinenko now involves police and intelligence officials from three different countries as well as Interpol. Although there is no shortage of clues and theories, the plot is thicker than ever, with a purported Berlin connection turning out to be a false alarm.

Officials in Hamburg on the trail of the deadly radioactive isotope that killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
AP

Officials in Hamburg on the trail of the deadly radioactive isotope that killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

The case of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence officer who died of a lethal dose of radioactive poison last month, is the most widely publicized international murder mystery in years. But despite the the involvement of police forces from three countries and Interpol, investigators appear to be no closer to finding out what really happened -- even though there is no shortage of clues and theories.

Officials have so far been working on the assumption that Litvinenko was poisoned on Nov. 1 at the Millennium Hotel in London. But Litvinenko's business associates Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, who met with their Russian colleague at the London hotel just hours before he showed the first signs of illness, claim the contamination did not actually take place that day, as Litvinenko himself believed, but rather sometime in mid-October.

Kovtun and Lugovoi believe Litvinenko could not have been poisoned on Nov. 1, because a London security firm they visited on Oct. 16 and haven't returned to since tested positive for radiation. Kovtun was himself contaminated with the deadly radioactive isotope polonium 210, and Lugovoi is currently undergoing medical tests for traces of the substance.

Meanwhile, Litvinenko's friend Alex Goldfarb, who was one of the last people to have visited the ill former spy prior to his death on Nov. 23, told the Associated Press on Thursday that he was certain that Litvinenko had been in perfect health the morning before his meeting with Kovtun and Lugovoi. As proof, Goldfarb cited the fact that officials found no traces of radiation in a car Litvinenko had driven the day before he fell ill.

Goldfarb believes that Kovtun is a prime suspect. "Kovtun is the person who had contact with polonium before coming to London," he said. "They are those guys," he said of Kovtun and Lugovoi, and "all the suspicion is on them."

Investigators believe it is possible Litvinenko's killers contaminated themselves by accident while handling the deadly substance. Officials from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has been asked to offer technical assistance to the British investigation, concluded over the weekend that the killers were not professionally trained to handle the substance, according to a report in the British daily The Guardian on Saturday.

Indeed, German police are currently investigating Kovtun on suspicion of illegally handling radioactive material. The German investigation was prompted by the discovery of a trail of radioactive contamination in Hamburg, where Kovtun stopped on his way from Moscow to London in late October. Traces of polonium 210 were found in the apartment of Kovtun's ex-wife, Marina Wall, who is currently under observation at a Hamburg hospital along with her two small children and her current partner.

In another mystery surrounding the Litvinenko case, Kovtun's current whereabouts are in doubt. In an exclusive interview with SPIEGEL TV on Tuesday, Kovtun claimed he was currently being treated for radiation poisoning at a hospital in Moscow. Although SPIEGEL TV's editor-in-chief Maria Gresz is certain it was indeed Kovtun on the phone -- because it was arranged by a reporter who had been in contact with the man for several weeks -- she could not verify his location.

At the same time, the German daily Berliner Zeitung reported on Thursday that police had traced a phone call Kovtun made from his cellular phone to his mother-in-law in Hamburg, and determined that he was in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district at the time he made the call. Although police officials in Hamburg confirmed the phone tap, spokeswoman Ulrike Sweden said they "found no indication that Mr. Kovtun was in Berlin at that time or at any other time. ... That turned out to be a false lead."

amb/spiegel/ap

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