Italian security expert tested for radiation in poisoning case
LONDON – An Italian security expert who met with a former KGB agent the day he fell ill with radiation poisoning was under British protection and being tested for contamination Tuesday, and officials ordered tests for eight people who exhibited possible symptoms.Mario Scaramella has said that he met the ex-spy turned Kremlin critic, Alexander Litvinenko, at a London sushi restaurant on Nov. 1, the day Litvinenko became sick. He died Nov. 23.Scaramella said he showed Litvinenko e-mails from a confidential source identifying the possible killers of a Russian investigative journalist and listing other potential targets for assassination – including himself and Litvinenko.In a deathbed statement, Litvinenko blamed the Kremlin for his poisoning, which has cast a shadow over British-Russian relations. Prime Minister Tony Blair said “there is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way” of a thorough investigation.Blair said he would speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the case “at any time that is appropriate.” Putin has strongly denied any Kremlin links to the poisoning.Moscow is important to Britain as an energy supplier and member of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, but many are critical of human rights abuses and unexplained deaths, including last month’s slaying of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.Scaramella said Tuesday he was being protected by a security team and would be tested for traces of polonium-210, the rare radioactive element found in Litvinenko’s body. The isotope is deadly in tiny amounts if ingested or inhaled.The Italian, an academic who helped investigate KGB activity in Italy during the Cold War, declined to say whether he would be questioned by police.London police say they are investigating the Litvinenko case as a “suspicious death” rather than murder, although they have devoted a large anti-terrorist force to the inquiry.Since Litvinenko’s death, more than 1,100 people have called a health hotline over concerns they may be at risk from polonium poisoning. Of those, eight exhibited symptoms that health officials thought should be examined as a precaution, the Health Protection Agency said. The tests should take about a week.Russia’s top nuclear official on Tuesday denied the polonium, usually manufactured in specialized nuclear facilities, could have been stolen from a nuclear facility in Russia.”Allegations that someone stole it during production are absolutely unfounded,” said Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the nuclear agency Rosatom. “The controls are very tough.”Kiriyenko said Russia exports 8 grams of polonium-210 monthly, all of it to the United States. He said there had been no exports to Britain in five years.A coroner will perform an autopsy on Litvinenko’s body Friday, “subject to appropriate precautions,” to try and pin down the cause and circumstances of death, said the local authority responsible, Camden Council. Doctors had sought expert advice on whether Litvinenko’s radioactive body posed a threat to the doctors and technicians performing the post-mortem.A coroner’s inquest will be opened Thursday and then adjourned until the police investigation is complete, the council said.Detectives on Tuesday continued to retrace Litvinenko’s steps Nov. 1.Traces of radiation have been found at six sites, including the central London office of Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled Russian billionaire and Litvinenko’s mentor.In a statement, Berezovsky said he had “complete faith in the British authorities and the police.”Litvinenko’s friend Andrei Nekrasov told The AP that Litvinenko frequently visited Berezovsky’s office to use the telephone, computer or photocopier.”Berezovsky’s office was open to him informally,” Nekrasov said. “His routine typically consisted of moving around, hopping on a bus, meeting people. He was trying to be active and needed.”Polonium-210 also was found in a building in the posh Mayfair neighborhood that houses Erinys UK Ltd., an international security and risk management company that Litvinenko visited the day he fell ill.Police also have found traces of radiation at a bar in London’s Millennium Hotel, a branch of Itsu Sushi restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, Litvinenko’s house in North London and a section of the hospital where he was treated.Police said Tuesday they were searching two more Mayfair addresses – a building at 58 Grosvenor St. and Sheraton Park Lane Hotel. A spokeswoman for Britian’s Health Protection Agency confirmed that experts had already conducted tests in “key public areas” of the hotel and found no risk of radiation poisoning.—Associated Press writers Ariel David in Rome, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Maria Hegstad in London and Jennifer Quinn in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.