More people tested for radiation as Russian spy case continues

Iran Materials 1 December 2006 11:38 (UTC +04:00)

(AFP) - Increasing numbers of people are being tested for possible exposure to radiation in the investigation into the death of a former Russian spy as the post-mortem on his body was due to be carried out.

It was also reported that British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and 2012 Olympics organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe travelled to Barcelona on one of the British Airways aircraft that were found to have traces of radioactive material. They have apparently spoken to authorities about it, reports Trend.

Meanwhile, stricken former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar's spokesman said he was the victim of an "unnatural" poisoning, fuelling fears his case may be linked to that of former spy Alexander Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was murdered in October.

Police in Ireland, where Gaidar fell ill, have started an inquiry into what caused his illness. Gaidar is currently at a hospital in Moscow.

In Britain, a specialist post-mortem was due to be carried out on Friday, after Litvinenko's urine was found to have large quantities of the radioactive substance polonium-210.

As of midnight Wednesday, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said that about 1,700 people called the government-run health service's hotline saying they were at the locations Litvinenko is said to have visited on the day he fell ill, and of those, it has followed up on 139 cases.

A total of 24, as of 4:00 pm (1600 GMT) Thursday, had been referred to specialists for an exposure assessment. Some 140 people have been asked to give urine samples. In 29 of these cases nothing of concern was found.

The investigation is gradually homing in on a string of London locations -- including two hospitals, a sushi bar and a hotel -- and three BA planes used on London-Moscow flights, on two of which traces of radiation have been found.

The HPA late on Thursday gave the all-clear for one of the planes.

British police and intelligence services increasingly suspect that "rogue elements" within the Russian state are behind Litvinenko's death on November 23, The Guardian reported on Friday, and they have apparently ruled out official government involvement. Citing sources within the police and intelligence services, the newspaper said that investigators were tracking down a group of five or more men who arrived in London shortly before Litvinenko fell ill on November 1, and watched a football match between London club Arsenal and CSKA Moscow the same day.

The group, described thus far only as witnesses, flew back to Moscow shortly afterward.

Meanwhile, Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported on Friday that Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi said that he was in London to attend the CSKA game with Dmitry Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko, all three of whom met with Litvinenko at the hotel on November 1.

Police also believe that Litvinenko was poisoned at or near the sushi bar, The Independent reported on Friday.

Without citing its sources, the newspaper said that police officers traced Litvinenko's movements from the time he left his north London home, to when he arrived at the restaurant by using information from his mobile phone records, checking his travel history, and through closed circuit television footage.

Locations where he stopped along the way were tested for radiation contamination but they all proved negative.

In addition to telling parliament that traces of radiation had been found at around 12 locations, out of a total of about 24 venues which were under investigation, Home Secretary John Reid also said that four aircraft were under suspicion, and a fifth was of interest.

The fourth plane is a Boeing 737 leased to Russian private carrier Transaero airlines which arrived at Heathrow on Thursday, Reid said.

British Airways said late on Thursday that the plane in Moscow had been given clearance by Britain's Civil Aviation Authority to fly back to London, where it will arrive on Friday, for testing. The Transaero plane has been given the all-clear, BAA, which manages Heathrow airport, said.

The HPA also said that at the two hospitals, "there is no contamination that would pose a public health risk" and both were open to the public and staff, while in the "key public areas" of five other addresses, including the hotel, "there is no significant risk to public health".

BA said it was doing everything it could, after taking calls from more than 7,500 concerned customers so far on its special helpline and receiving more than 60,000 hits on its Internet page relating to the radiation alert -- it said earlier that about 33,000 of its passengers may have come into contact with a radioactive substance.

The Daily Telegraph reported on Friday, meanwhile, that Litvinenko's would-be assassins dropped the polonium-210 on the floor of a London hotel room, citing a senior government source, and also said that British scientists are believed to have identified the plant where the substance was produced.