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They got me, but they won't get everybody, said ex-Russian spy

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MYSTERY DEATH: Alexander Litvinenko at a press conference in London in 2004 and as he appeared in his hospital bed at the University College Hospital, central London, on November 20, 2006.
MYSTERY DEATH: Alexander Litvinenko at a press conference in London in 2004 and as he appeared in his hospital bed at the University College Hospital, central London, on November 20, 2006.

Hasan Suroor

Litvinenko dies in London hospital after battling for life for a week

LONDON: A former Russian spy, who sparked sensational headlines after he alleged that he had been poisoned by someone acting for the Kremlin, died in a London hospital on Thursday night after battling for his life for a week.

Alexander Litvinenko (43), who fell seriously ill after meeting two Russians and an Italian contact at two separate venues on November 1, reportedly said shortly before he died that "they got me, but they won't get everybody.'' All three have denied involvement. Doctors were not able to establish the cause of his death and Scotland Yard, whose counter-terror unit is investigating the case, said it was treating it as an "unexplained'' death. "Inquiries continue into the circumstances surrounding how Mr. Litvinenko became unwell. The matter is being investigated as an unexplained death,'' it said.

Charges dismissed

The Russian Government dismissed allegations that it was behind a "plot'' to kill him as "sheer nonsense.''

In a statement, which Mr. Litvinenko reportedly dictated before his death, he said he had a "message to the person behind my present condition. The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate... in your ears for the rest of your life.''

His friends insisted that he had been a victim of a Kremlin-inspired "plot'' to eliminate Moscow's critics.

A former colonel in Russia's secret service the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) Mr. Litvinenko defected to Britain six years ago and became a fierce critic of the Russian Government.

He was reported to have been involved in investigating the recent killing of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who had also been a critic of the Government.

Threat to ties

DPA reports:

The death of Mr. Litvinenko threatened to harm British-Russian relations as police revealed they found traces of radiation at two locations frequented by him. The Foreign Office said it had contacted the authorities in Moscow over the case which was being treated as a ``very serious matter.''

Scotland Yard said higher-than-usual levels of radiation had been detected at a central London hotel and a sushi bar where Mr. Litvinenko met contacts before he fell ill.

Unprecedented

``We are faced with the unprecedented event in the U.K. of someone being poisoned by a type of radiation,'' Pat Troop, chief executive of Britain's main health watchdog, the HPA, said. The HPA confirmed that a ``significant quantity'' of the radioactive isotope Polonium-210 had been traced in Litvinenko's urine.

Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism branch, said police were keeping an ``open mind'' on the investigations. Detectives were trying to trace the people with whom Mr. Litvinenko was in contact by interviewing witnesses and going through CCTV footage.

Investigations so far have established that Mr. Litvinenko met two Russians one of whom he did not know at the Millennium Hotel in central London on the morning of November 1. One of the men, a stranger, had repeatedly urged him to join him in a cup of tea, Mr. Litvinenko was reported to have told detectives.

Later, he had a rendezvous with an Italian academic, Mario Scaramella, at the Itsu sushi bar near Piccadilly Circus to discuss documentation concerning the murder in Moscow last month of Politkovskaya.

As a result of the radiation findings, Home Secretary John Reid ordered the monitoring and assessment of people who would have been in contact with him.

This would affect a ``small number of staff'' at the two hospitals where he was treated.

Putin rejects charges

Speaking at a Russia-EU meeting in Helsinki, Mr. Putin, rejecting any accusations of official involvement in Mr. Litvinenko's death, offered his condolences to his family. Questioning the genuineness of the Litvinenko statement, he said: ``Why was this note not published when he was still alive?'' He called the death a tragedy but its circumstances were ``not worth any further comments.''

He added: ``The death of a person is always a tragedy. I regret the death and express my regret to the family.'' He said there was no evidence of a crime, but Russia was prepared to provide the British authorities with ``every possible help'' in their investigations.

Mr. Putin said he believed the death will be used as a ``provocation,'' adding that he hoped the British authorities don't do anything to whip up a ``political scandal.'' While Russian dissidents and opponents of Mr. Putin pointed the finger of blame at Moscow, some analysts in London said Mr. Litvinenko could have fallen victim to a ``private feud'' between wealthy Russian exiles in Britain. Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen dissident who claimed asylum in London two years ago, and who was an ally of Mr. Litvinenko, urged Britain and the European Union to intervene.

``Britain and the European Union can no longer stand silent while gangster politics is imported on to the streets of London. The extent to which Putin's political critics are at risk in Russia, and now even here in London, constitutes a complete violation of human rights and civil liberties.''

The HPA stressed that contamination cannot be passed on externally, and that those at risk would have had to be in contact with the patient's blood, urine or faeces.

Polonium-210 was described as a ``pure alpha emitter'' that could not penetrate the human skin but would have had to be inhaled or ingested through a wound or by eating.

The ``large quantities'' found would have spread through the body rapidly and damaged the bone marrow, kidneys and liver.

Earlier, Mr. Litvinenko's father, Walter, also blamed the ``Russian regime'' and claimed that his son had been killed with a ``tiny nuclear bomb.''


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