The poisoning of fugitive former Russian secret agent Alexander Litvinenko was a fiendishly clever example of stage-managed murder, Russian experts said on Monday, as lurid new theories emerged about who ordered the attack in London.
"Whoever thought up this poisonous substance, taking Litvinenko's life, was not just a professional, but an artist," veteran journalist and biology professor Pavel Lobkov wrote in the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine.
Lobkov and other experts highlighted the use of polonium-210 to poison Litvinenko -- not only because the radioactive substance is so rare, but because the dosage appeared tailored to ensure a slow yet certain death.
However, there was no agreement on who could have employed such sophistication in murdering the former Russian federal security service (FSB) officer, turned outspoken Kremlin critic and London exile.
The pro-government Izvestia daily wrote that Litvinenko's agony in a London hospital and eventual death on Thursday, followed by the publication of a searing statement accusing President Vladimir Putin of murder, was brilliantly set up by the Kremlin's enemies.
"The impression is that someone wants to prolong this martyrdom of 'Putin's victim,'" Izvestia wrote. "The more fantastic the crime, the better it suits the genre. The 'Evil Russia' show is enjoying success."
However, former KGB expert Stanislav Lekarev told Echo of Moscow radio that the gradual death of Litvinenko and inability of British doctors to make a correct diagnosis pointed to the involvement of top professional murderers.
A slow death "gives time to get out and cover up the traces of anyone who took part," he said.
Contradictory theories continued to emerge in the Russian press on what lay behind the crime.
The Moscow Times daily quoted political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky saying that the poisoning was part of a Byzantine power struggle ahead of 2008, when Putin is meant to step down and allow new presidential elections.
Echoing the Russian leadership's position, Izvestia argued that only opponents of Putin could have profited, and also cast doubt on key details.
According to the daily, Litvinenko's deathbed accusation, which was published posthumously in English, could not have been written originally in Russian, raising the possibility that the dying ex-spy was not the author.
"Specialists say that it does not have the character of a Russian-speaking person. The construction of the letter was more characteristic of an English text."
The mass market Moskovsky Komsomolets quoted one of the last people to meet with Litvinenko before he fell sick, an ex-KGB officer named Andrei Lugovoi, as saying that the real target in the poisoning may have been Chechen rebel leader Akhmad Zakayev, a friend of Litvinenko.
Kommersant daily, however, quoted a former commander of Litvinenko in the FSB security service saying that the murderer may have been someone seeking revenge for a Chechen rebel fighter allegedly tortured by Litvinenko in the 1990s.