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Ex-Russian spy's death: Search on for witnesses

india Updated: Nov 26, 2006 06:17 IST
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An ex-Soviet spy poisoned in London named an alleged Russian agent he feared had been sent to hunt him down as he lay dying in his hospital bed and had previously complained to police the man had harassed him at home, British newspapers reported on Saturday.

Alexander Litvinenko - a former KGB agent and fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin - died Thursday night of heart failure after suddenly falling gravely ill from what doctors said was poisoning by a radioactive substance.

The former agent alleged a Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief previously stationed in London had been assigned by Moscow to watch him, Britain's Sunday Times newspaper reported. Litvinenko, who spoke to friends and dictated a vitriolic statement about Putin's government while in the hospital, claimed the Russian agent was not directly involved in his poisoning, but had been sent to monitor his activities, the newspaper said. London's Metropolitan police said it could not immediately confirm whether officers would seek to find and interview the alleged Russian agent named by Litvinenko.

Police said anti-terorrist officers investigating the former agent's death had not found records of earlier harassment complaints during their inquiry.

An audio recording of Litvinenko making the allegation was being handed over to officers, the Sunday Times reported. Police said no tape had yet been received.

Russia's London embassy said it could not immediately comment on the claims. Britain's Foreign Office could not immediately confirm if a diplomat of the named used by Litvinenko had been based in London.

"Whilst in hospital Alexander named the man he alleged was watching him and said he had been the SVR (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) station chief in London until 2003, posing as a diplomat at the Russian embassy," Litvinenko's friend Alex Goldfarb said.

In other interviews before his death, excerpts and footage of which were released Saturday, Litvinenko claimed he was ordered to hire assassins to kill rivals to Kremlin-favored business leaders and execute whistle-blowers who threatened to expose corruption.

Litvinenko, 43, told police he believed he had been poisoned on November 1, while investigating the October slaying of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another critic of Putin's government. His contaminated body was released to a coroner by police late Saturday and government pathologists were expected to begin an autopsy though nuclear experts claimed investigators may never pinpoint the exact source of the rare radioactive polonium-210 element found in the ex-spy's urine.

Britain's Health Protection Agency said the poisoning was "an unprecedented event." Police said traces of radiation were found at Litvinenko's north London house, a sushi bar where he met a contact November 1 and a hotel he visited earlier that day, police said. In a dramatic deathbed statement, Litvinenko accused Putin who he called "barbaric and ruthless" of ordering his poisoning. Putin has called the death a tragedy and denied involvement.

The ex-spy was recruited into the Soviet-era KGB and worked for its successor, the FSB, where he was promoted to a specialist counterterrorism and organized crime unit.

Litvinenko spoke to University of Westminster academics James Heartfield and Julia Svetlichnaja in April and May, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported as it published a syndicated version of the interviews on Saturday.

He told researchers that after the fall of Communism, his directive was to recruit powerful businessmen who could stimulate an economic boom, and to hire assassins to dispense with their rivals. "Our department worked on the so-called problem principle the government had a problem and we had simply to deal with it," the researchers quoted him as saying.

By 1997, the department carried out "extralegal executions of unsuitable businessmen, politicians and other public figures," Litvinenko said.

In an interview recorded in late 2005 with British television journalist John Coates, excerpts of which were broadcast on Britain's Sky television on Saturday, Litvinenko said he raised concerns in 1997 with Putin then head of the FSB. Litvinenko publicly accused his superiors in 1998 of ordering him to kill Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who was living in exile in London.

He spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office. Litvinenko was later acquitted and moved to Britain which granted him asylum in 2000. He recently became a British citizen. The Kremlin had no immediate comment Saturday on the interviews. Moscow's government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta pointed suspicion Saturday at London's community of Russian exiles.

Litvinenko "made his choice and drank his poison ... when he betrayed those he worked for," it said in an article. The newspaper speculated that Berezovsky was involved, aiming either to use the death to discredit Putin's government or settle a business dispute. A presenter on Russia's state-run Channel One television channel said there was "a theory (that) Litvinenko poisoned himself."

Litvinenko was hospitalized last week after his hair fell out, his throat became swollen and his immune and nervous systems were severely damaged.

Vladimir Slivyak, a nuclear expert and co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ekozashchita, or Ecodefense, said Polonium-210 could be sourced from Russia, but that tracing its origin would be virtually impossible.

Russian exile Leonid Nevzlin - a former shareholder in the Yukos oil company and charged by Russian prosecutors with organizing murders, fraud and tax evasion -said in Israel on Saturday he had met Litvinenko, who passed on documents related to the charges, and claimed those inquiries may have provided a motive for the ex-spy's murder.

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