Poisoned-spy case tests Europe's cross-border cooperation

As Germany and Interpol join the Litvinenko investigation, clues – and agendas – are often at odds.

By , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

British police have been pounding Moscow pavement for over a week. Russian detectives are headed for London, while a Scotland Yard liaison arrived Monday in Hamburg. On Tuesday, Interpol got into the act.

They're all pursuing clues – and, perhaps, very different agendas – in last month's fatal poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. But as the international probe expands, the players – and clues – are often at odds, complicating a case that demands considerable cross- border cooperation.

"This story is becoming so strange that it almost seems these traces of polonium and other clues are being deliberately scattered all around for some reason," says Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign Relations and Defense Policy in Moscow. "It all plays into a very tense situation in Russia's relations with the West, and in Russia's own domestic political scene."

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On Tuesday, Interpol, the international police organization, joined the expanding probe. "Cooperation through Interpol channels has already started, as several countries are involved in this case," Timur Lakhonin, the head of Interpol's Russia division, told the official RIA-Novosti news agency.

As the radioactive trail of polonium has spread to Germany, investigators have found the strongest indication yet that the substance may have originated in Russia. German authorities are investigating whether businessman Dmitri Kovtun transported polonium from Moscow via Hamburg, to London, where he met with Mr. Litvinenko on Nov. 1.

Hamburg police have found polonium traces on a BMW that picked up Mr. Kovtun at the airport when he arrived Oct. 28. It also turned up in his mother-in-law's home, on a file he handled at the Hamburg immigration office, a couch where he slept in his ex-wife's apartment, and on the clothing of her boyfriend.

"There is a reasonable basis for suspicion that he may not be just a victim, but could also be a perpetrator," said German prosecutor Martin Köhnke. Kovtun's ex-wife, her two children, and her boyfriend have been hospitalized for radiation tests.

Kovtun is being treated for polonium poisoning at a Moscow radiation clinic, as is another Russian who took part in that meeting, ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi. Both men have denied any wrongdoing, and both have been questioned in the past week by Russian security officials in the presence of visiting British detectives.

The Russian media have quoted unnamed officials as saying that Russian police, due to visit Britain in the next few days, will focus on the theory that Kovtun and Mr. Lugovoi were engaged in smuggling nuclear materials and may have been trying to shop the illicit polonium to anti-Kremlin émigrés based in London. They suggest Russian detectives will seek interviews with Litvinenko's former patron, exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, and Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev, both of whom have been granted political asylum in Britain.

"It really looks like it might be some sort of a black-market thing," says Daniil Kobyakov, an expert with the Pir Center in Moscow, which specializes in nuclear issues. "It's hard to imagine that professional intelligence people would create this kind of weird spectacle, or even have used such an expensive and impractical weapon as polonium in the first place."

Other experts suggest a deeper conspiracy in which Kovtun and Lugovoi are being scapegoated by shadowy Russian secret-service factions. "Whoever is doing this has lots of money and resources," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of Panorama, an independent Moscow think tank. "Now it looks like they are killing the witnesses."

Russia's chief prosecutor, Yury Chaika, launched his own probe into the Litvinenko affair last week, saying it would enable his department to prosecute any suspects at home, since they cannot be extradited to Britain under Russian law. The prospect of being interrogated by Russian police has reportedly sent chills through London's emigre community. Andrei Nekrasov, a friend of Litvinenko's, said people fear the Kremlin agents will use their inquiries as "a pretext to harass exiles in London," according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the head of Germany's investigation, Thomas Menzel, said Monday that his requests for information to Russian authorities have gone unanswered. Nine British detectives working in Moscow for the past week have remained tight-lipped about their experiences. They have been blocked by their Russian hosts to directly question witnesses, interview top security officials, or talk with prisoner Mikhail Trepashkin, who claims to have vital information about Litvinenko's murder.

"Russia's lack of cooperation with the British is rooted in Moscow's displeasure with Britain for giving asylum to people like Berezovsky and Zakayev," says Mr. Suslov. "Russia is showing them that they can't expect help from us until they become more cooperative in helping Moscow extradite those we consider to be criminals and terrorists."

Key players

Boris Berezovsky: A Russian billionaire who fled to London in 2000 after falling out with President Vladimir Putin. Alexander Litvinenko said in 1998 that while working for the FSB, the Russian domestic security service and one of the successors to the KGB, he had been ordered to kill Berezovsky, but refused. Berezovsky paid for Litvinenko's book about the 1999 bombings to be published; also paid for Litvinenko's house in North London.

Alexander Goldfarb: Executive director of Berezovsky's US-based International Foundation for Civil Liberties and spokesman for the Litvinenko affair. Met Litvinenko in the late 1990s; the two became friends. Litvinenko called him when he decided to defect in 2000; Goldfarb arranged his escape.

Andrei Lugovoi: Former KGB agent, serving mainly as a bodyguard for officials, including former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. In 1996, started work for a TV station owned by Berezovsky. Now heads a company with 500 employees. Claims his dozen or more meetings in London with Litvinenko this year were for the purpose of linking up with "prominent British companies." Says he never worked for the FSB.

Dmitri Kovtun: Childhood friend of Andrei Lugovoi; both are alumni of the same military academy, as well as business associates. Under investigation by German authorities for illegal transportation of a radioactive substance.

Mikhail Trepashkin: Ex-FSB agent jailed on treason charges for divulging "state secrets." After leaving the FSB, he investigated allegations that the organization was behind the 1999 Moscow apartment building bombings – events the Kremlin blamed on Chechen rebels. In a letter dated Nov. 23, 2006, and released Dec. 1, Trepashkin claimed that in 2002 he warned Litvinenko – who wrote a book claiming that the FSB was behind the 1999 bombings – that the FSB had set up a special squad to kill him.

Paths of Intrigue: Key dates in the Litvinenko case

Oct. 7: Journalist Anna Politkovskaya is murdered.

Oct. 16: Former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi introduces Dimitry Kovtun to Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Oct. 19: Litvinenko says President Putin was involved in Politkovskaya case.

Oct. 28: Kovtun travels via Aeroflot from Moscow to Hamburg.

Nov. 1: Litvinenko meets Italian Mario Scaramella for lunch at a sushi bar in London. Scaramella gives Litvinenko a supposed hit list with their names on it.

Afternoon: Litvinenko has tea at the Millenium Hotel's Pine Bar with Lugovoi and Kovtun, who flew in earlier that day from Hamburg on a Germanwings flight. Litvinenko also apparently met that day with Vyacheslav Sokolenko, another former agent, possibly at the same hotel.

Evening: Litvinenko becomes ill.

Nov. 3: Litvinenko is admitted to Barnet Hospital.

Nov. 11: Litvinenko tells BBC's Russian service he's been poisoned.

Nov. 17: Litvinenko is transferred to University College Hospital and placed under armed guard.

Nov. 21: Kremlin dismisses as "sheer nonsense" that Russian authorities were behind the poisoning.

Nov. 23: Litvinenko dies.

Nov. 24: British officials say Litvinenko was poisoned by polonium-210. A statement said to have been dictated by Litvinenko on Nov. 21, accusing Putin of ordering his murder, is made public by his friends.

Speaking at an EU-Russia summit in Helsinki, Putin says Litvinenko's death was "not the result of violence" and extends his condolences to the family.

Former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar falls suddenly ill at a conference in Maynooth, Ireland. He recovers quickly, but later blames poisoning.

Nov. 27: British government opens an investigation.

Nov. 29: Small traces of radiation found on two British Airways jets that flew Lugovoi between London and Moscow on Oct. 25 and 31.

Nov. 30: Trail of radiation in London expands to four new sites, including a hotel Litvinenko did not visit, bringing the total to 12.

Dec. 3: Nine British investigators go to Moscow to interview Lugovoi and others. Lugovoi is then quoted as saying he was exposed to radiation, contrary to his previous claims.

Dec. 4: The visiting investigators barred from interviewing Mikhail Trepashkin, an ex-FSB agent in jail on treason charges.

Dec. 5: Russia says no suspects will be extradited to Britain.

Dec. 6: Scotland Yard declares the case a murder. Kovtun questioned by Russian officials, in the presence of British investigators, at a Moscow clinic where he was undergoing tests for radiation. The British agents are blocked from questioning Lugovoi. Meanwhile, Scaramella is released from hospital.

Dec. 7: Litvinenko's funeral takes place at London mosque; conflicting reports on whether he converted to Islam on his deathbed. Britain says seven Pine Bar employees tested positive for radiation. Russian prosecutors open a criminal investigation.

Dec. 9: German police disclose that they have found traces of polonium-210 at Hamburg locations that Kovtun visited in October.

Dec. 10: Marina Litvinenko says she suspects Russian authorities in her husband's poisoning, though not Putin himself.

Dec. 11: British investigators meet with Lugovoi in Moscow hospital. Scotland Yard liaison arrives in Hamburg.

Dec. 12: Interpol joins the investigation.

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