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Kremlin intrigue feeds theories on poisoned-spy case

Who was behind ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's highly public demise?

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"The version about Berezovsky's involvement finds further confirmation," former chief of the FSB security service Nikolai Kovalyov told the official RIA-Novosti news agency. "The ultimate goal of the operation could have been further building-up of KGB-phobia [in the West], to claim that Russia is ruled by members of the secret services."

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Monday, lawyers for another former security officer – now in prison in central Russia – appealed to the British to collect testimony as soon as possible from Mikhail Trepashkin, saying he had key evidence and that his life was in danger.

In a letter from prison, Mr. Trepashkin, who was jailed for revealing state secrets, said he had warned Litvinenko several years ago about a government death squad that intended to kill Putin opponents.

Meanwhile, the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia explored four theories of Litvinenko's death in an article last week, most involving Berezovsky.

First was the suggestion that Litvinenko may have been dealing in illicit nuclear materials, perhaps on Berezovsky's behalf, and was accidentally poisoned by his own contraband. The second, which casts Litvinenko as a hero, cites alleged evidence that Berezovsky may have been building a nuclear bomb for Chechen terrorists, using a polonium triggering device. In this version, Litvinenko swallowed the polonium "as his final service to his Motherland." In the third scenario, Litvinenko may have been planning to betray Berezovsky, and was killed by his erstwhile patron. "Think about where the first traces of polonium were found [in Berezovsky's office]," it said.

Izvestia's final theory, and the only one the newspaper attempted to debunk, is that Russian special services may have killed the turncoat Litvinenko in revenge for his defection six years ago. "But Litvinenko was a pawn.... There was no reason for Moscow to get involved in an international scandal [over him]," it argued.

British media have reported that the St. Petersburg mafia may have put out a hit on Litvinenko. Mario Scaramella, who helped Italy's parliament investigate cold war-era Soviet espionage, said he met Litvinenko at a London sushi bar on the day he is thought to have been poisoned. "We know very well who are the enemies of Litvinenko. The work we did for years was to underline the links among Russian mafia and some high-level corrupt officers in the Russian government," Mr. Scaramella told BBC radio.

Scaramella said that he showed Litvinenko e-mails warning that their lives may be in danger. The threat came from organized criminals in St. Petersburg, he said.

Regardless of who may have killed the Kremlin's vocal opponents – Politkovskaya and Litvinenko – the damage to Putin and Russia's fragile political stability may already have been done. "The atmosphere of lawlessness is undermining the unspoken rules that have kept Russia's elite more or less unified during the Putin years," says Mr. Ryabov. "Public faith in rule of law has been shaken. Any kind of political activity is starting to look very dangerous."

Tracking polonium-210

In order to obtain a large enough dose of polonium-210 to kill someone – as was allegedly done in Alexander Litvinenko's case – it would have to be manufactured by bombarding the metal bismuth with a stream of neutrons, say experts. The best way of doing this is in a channel-type nuclear reactor – common only in Russia, Britain, and Canada.

Russia produces about 8 grams of polonium-210 monthly, says its Atomic Energy Agency head, Sergei Kiriyenko. The entire output, produced at one plant in the Urals, is exported to the US for use in the paint and printing industries.

"The control in Russia is very strict," Mr. Kiriyenko insists. "We have only one producer, and it is transported under special conditions."

Polonium-210's alpha rays are weak, blocked by a few sheets of paper. In order to be deadly, a fairly large quantity would have to be ingested. But some Russian scientists say the choice of polonium as a weapon is logical.

"It easily diffuses," which means it can be used in aerosol form, says Nikolai Chechenin, deputy director of the Skobeltsyn Nuclear Physics Institute in Moscow. "Besides being radioactive, it is also a poison. So it has a double effect," he says.

Russian scientists say the Soviet Union experimented with polonium in a 1950s scheme to build a radiological bomb, but abandoned the effort due to the substance's very short half-life of 138 days.

Information from the wire services was used in this report.