Litvinenko Mystery German Police Widen Radiation Probe

The trail of polonium-210 that killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko leads to Hamburg, where authorities have opened an investigation into Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun. His ex-wife, both her children and her new partner may have been contaminated with radiation, police say.


German authorities checking buildings in Hamburg visited by Dmitry Kovtun, the Russian business associate of murdered ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, said on Monday that Kovtun's German ex-wife, her two children and her new partner may have been contaminated with radioactive polonium-201.

Marina W., 31, her children aged one and three years and her partner are being examined in hospital, Hamburg police said. Kovtun had spent the night of October 31 in the Hamburg apartment of his ex-wife.

The next day he flew to London for what British police believe was the meeting at which Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium. Kovtun, who says that Litvinenko was the middleman in one of his business deals, is now in hospital in Moscow. There have been conflicting reports as to why he was hospitalized.

German investigators found radiation in the bathroom and on the settee of the Hamburg apartment and believe Kovtun, 41, was already contaminated when he travelled to Germany from Moscow on October 28.

Kovtun met Litvinenko together with another business associate, Andrei Lugovoi, at London's Millennium hotel on November 1, shortly before Litvinenko fell fatally ill.

Kovtun is being investigated on suspicion of illegally handling radioactive material, Hamburg's Chief Prosecutor Martin Köhnke told a news conference. There was "a reasonable basis for suspicion that he may not just be a victim but could also be a perpetrator", Köhnke said.

German officials also found radiation traces in a house in Pinneberg in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein which belongs to Kovtun's former mother-in-law, and in a car used to collect him from Hamburg airport on October 28, and on a document he touched.

A prosecutor said that one possible explanation for the radiation was that while "packaging or transporting" the polonium before the London meeting, Kovtun had accidentally touched it.

However, the German authorities said the evidence did not necessarily mean Kovtun had carried a polonium source from Moscow to London via Hamburg in order to poison Litvinenko. He may have just been contaminated by the material and carried traces with him, they said.

Russian authorities have been insisting that they are doing their best to track down the culprits and Russia's ambassador to Berlin, Vladimir Kotenev, on Sunday rejected criticism from the German government that the Russians were not doing enough to investigate the case.

Kotenev told German television that Russian authorities were cooperating with British and German police and that Russian prosecutors had opened their own investigation into the case. "We are no less interested in finding out the truth," he told ARD television.

The discovery of a radiation in Hamburg prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to warn the Russian government that cases such as Litvinenko's death and the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya risked damaging Russia's image abroad. "This is not a good sign and it has to change," Merkel told the German television station ARD in an interview due to be screened on Monday night.

She called for close cooperation between the Russian and British authorities to solve the Litvinenko case and said Russian President Vladimir Putin had assured her he would assist in the investigation.

"This whole series of cases in which people are losing their lives" was causing "a certain concern," Merkel said.

Experts said on Sunday they were 95 percent certain that the traces had come from the deadly radioactive isotope polonium-210.

However no source of radiation was found during the searches of the Hamburg properties, and police have stressed there is no risk to the local population. Hamburg's Police Chief Werner Jantosch told reporters there was no indication that the case had its roots in the city.

Litvinenko died on November 23. In a statement he issued shortly before his death, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being responsible for his poisoning.

The Kremlin has denied involvement in the case, which has revived memories of Cold War espionage, strained relations between Russia and Britain, and sparked a number of conspiracy theories.

cro/Reuters/dpa

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