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Tuesday, November 21, 2006 - Page updated at 01:26 PM

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Russian government denies involvement in poisoning

Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW — It's a crime straight out of the pages of a Cold War spy best-seller. A former KGB agent who angered the Kremlin and was investigating a slaying lunches with an Italian who claims to have useful leads. When the former spy gets back to his London home he keels over, poisoned by rat killer.

What happened to Alexander Litvinenko on Nov. 1, however, was real. Doctors say he was poisoned after ingesting thallium, a toxic substance commonly used in rat poison, and is fighting for his life at University College Hospital in London.

Litvinenko's friends and associates blame Russian authorities for Litvinenko's poisoning, though they acknowledge they have no evidence to support that claim. They argue that Litvinenko's writings and his alliance with exiled Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky made him a prime target for Russian authorities.

On Monday, the Russian government dismissed claims made by Litvinenko's friends as outlandish and baseless.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press that accusations of Russian government involvement in Litvinenko's poisoning were "nothing but sheer nonsense."

Litvinenko, 43, was moved into intensive care Monday after his condition worsened slightly, according to a statement from University College London Hospital. A friend of Litvinenko's, Alexander Goldfarb, said doctors have estimated Litvinenko's chances of surviving at 50 percent.

"He looks like a ghost," said Goldfarb, who has been visiting Litvinenko regularly. "All of his hair is gone, and he's very thin. He looks like a cancer patient after chemotherapy."

A gram of thallium, a colorless, odorless, water-soluble heavy metal, is enough to kill. Once ingested, it causes extensive damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach and intestines. It also wreaks havoc on the immune system.

Goldfarb said Litvinenko is being fed intravenously. Despite his condition, he is able to speak and has been meeting regularly with investigators from Scotland Yard about the case.

Goldfarb said Litvinenko had two meetings the day he was stricken. He first met with two Russian men from Moscow at a London hotel, where he drank tea. Later, he met with an Italian academic, Mario Scaramella, at a sushi restaurant called Itsu. Scaramella has helped investigate KGB activity in Italy during the Cold War.

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Litvinenko had been investigating the Oct. 7 slaying of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an ardent Kremlin critic who frequently wrote about human-rights abuses committed by Russian soldiers in the separatist conflict in Chechnya. Scaramella gave Litvinenko documents that contained information he believed was useful in the Politkovskaya investigation, Goldfarb said.

Litvinenko said in an interview before his condition worsened that Scaramella called him unexpectedly Nov. 1 and asked to meet.

"I ordered the food, and he took just water and was hurrying me," Litvinenko said. "From the text, I understood that the mentioned people could have really arranged the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. As soon as I got home, I put down the papers and I [collapsed]."

Litvinenko became a KGB agent in 1988 and rose through the ranks at the intelligence agency until fall 1998, when he appeared at a news conference and accused the agency of asking him to help assassinate Berezovsky. The next year, Litvinenko was arrested on charges of abuse of office and spent nine months in jail before winning an acquittal in 2000.

With Goldfarb's help, Litvinenko fled to Great Britain and was granted political asylum in 2001. He became a British citizen last month.

Goldfarb said that what has angered the Kremlin the most about Litvinenko is a book he published in 2003, "Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within," which claimed that Russian intelligence agents engineered a series of apartment-building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities that killed nearly 300 people in 1999.

Russian authorities blamed the attacks on Chechen separatists who had been fighting to break away the small, mountainous republic of Chechnya from Russia. Litvinenko, Berezovsky and others in their circle claim the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB, orchestrated the bombings to help rally Russians around then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's vow to crush the rebellion.

In March 2000, Putin called accusations that the FSB was involved in the bombings "delirious nonsense. ... The very allegation is immoral."

Goldfarb said Litvinenko had received threats before but thought living in Britain gave him a layer of protection.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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