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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

British Police Follow Litvinenko Trail

APLitvinenko in a hospital on Nov. 20
Anti-terrorist police combed London over the weekend for traces of the radioactive substance that killed Alexander Litvinenko as conspiracy theories swirled over the dramatic poisoning that threatens to shatter Russia's standing in the West.

President Vladimir Putin is facing an unprecedented barrage of Western media criticism after the 43-year-old former spy accused him of his "barbaric and ruthless murder" in a deathbed statement.

Putin immediately dismissed the accusation Friday, calling Litvinenko's death a tragedy and accusing his opponents of engineering a political provocation.

But a chill in relations with Britain appeared set to deepen Sunday, as a senior British minister, Peter Hain, accused Putin of presiding over "huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy."

Litvinenko, an employee of fierce Kremlin critic and oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky, suffered heart failure late Thursday after days in intensive care in a case that baffled doctors up to the last minute. The British Health Protection Agency announced late Friday that it had discovered in his urine traces of polonium-210, a rare and hard-to-produce radioactive isotope that is lethal if ingested, inhaled or injected.

The discovery prompted British Cabinet ministers to convene a top-level security committee -- known as Cobra -- on Saturday amid fears of contamination. The Health Protection Agency set up a hotline for worried British citizens, and Russia's ambassador to Britain was called in to the Foreign Office.

British detectives are to fly to Moscow early this week to pick up the trail. Officers want to question two Russians whom Litvinenko met for tea in a Mayfair hotel bar on Nov. 1, the day he fell ill, and an Italian expert on Russian security services he met in a sushi restaurant later that day.

Police have found traces of the radioactive substance in the hotel -- where the two Russians had also been staying -- the sushi bar and Litvinenko's home.

The Sunday Times cited one guest of the hotel, the Millennium, as saying room 441 had been blocked off and was being guarded by police. The hotel's health and safety manager, Brian Kelly, did not respond to several calls for comment Sunday. All other staff members referred calls to him.

Litvinenko's death, just weeks after the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow, has provoked fears that Russia's secret services are running amok.

Some claim the killing is a sign that a Byzantine battle for ascendancy between Kremlin clans is spinning out of control ahead of the presidential election in 2008. Others directly accuse Putin of being behind a plot to kill a one-time FSB agent whose move to Britain in 2000 was considered a betrayal of the state.

But many speculate that the death might have been engineered and then expertly stage-managed by Berezovsky, a one-time Kremlin gray cardinal, known for elaborate intrigues and propaganda games, in an attempt to discredit Putin's government.

Litvinenko's deathbed accusation that Putin was behind the poisoning grabbed headlines around the world.

Alistair Fuller / AP
Litvinenko shown at home in 2002
"You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life," Litvinenko said in a statement that his friend Alex Goldfarb said he signed shortly before he died. Goldfarb read the statement to a barrage of television cameras. "You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women."

Putin questioned whether Litvinenko had ever signed off on the note.

"If such a note appeared before the death of Mr. Litvinenko, then there's always the question: Why wasn't it published while he was still alive? And if it appeared after his death, then of course how can one comment on this?" Putin told reporters during a European Union-Russia summit in Helsinki on Friday. "It is very sad that such tragic events as the death of a person are being used for political provocations."

Putin's stance was backed up by a welter of Russian lawmakers, who all squarely pointed the finger at Berezovsky as the only person who could benefit from Litvinenko's death.

"Litvinenko did not present any threat to the Russian secret services," said Alexander Khinshtein, a deputy in the pro-Kremlin United Russia faction and a Litvinenko foe who is considered close to the Federal Security Service, or FSB. "There was no sense in liquidating him. It was very clear that the liquidation of Litvinenko would only lead to accusations that this was done by Moscow.

"His death is only advantageous to Berezovsky," he said, adding that he knew of a pattern of similar "provocations" that law enforcement agencies had tied to the businessman, who is wanted in Russia on charges of fraud and terrorism. One example, he said, was the 2004 purported kidnapping of Berezovsky ally and presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin.

Berezovsky declined to comment for this report, saying only: "They can say whatever they like. I am not making any comment until after the police make their conclusions." He declined to say whether he had been questioned over the poisoning.

Goldfarb, who holds a doctorate in biology, said he had been briefly questioned by police. "But of course I can't share any information. I only arrived in England 13 days after the poisoning," he said.

Oleg Gordievsky, the most senior KGB agent to defect to the West, said the use of such a rare substance as polonium-210 indicated that Russian intelligence agencies had to be involved. "The KGB could make polonium and any radioactive material. They have a huge factory for making poison," he said.

He said the media exposure that Litvinenko's anti-Putin friends got as the former spy died a slow and painful death instead of being killed quickly was testimony to the bungling abilities of the FSB, and not a sign that the poisoning was engineered by Putin's opponents. "It's a disaster," he said. "Now the world has a picture of Russia. They know Russia is a country of troglodytes. Now no one wants anything to do with Russia."

He accused the two Russians whom Litvinenko met at the London hotel of slipping the poison into his tea.

One of the Russians, Andrei Lugovoi, denied any involvement in the poisoning. Lugovoi, who worked for Berezovsky in the 1990s as head of security for ORT, now Channel One, television, told Russian and British media that the trio had met to discuss a business proposal. The other Russian present at the meeting was an associate, Dmitry Kovtun, he said.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and one-time Kremlin insider, said the poisoning was part of an elaborate power struggle as the race to anoint Putin's successor heats up. He claimed the attack was an attempt by supporters of Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister, to force Putin to push aside the siloviki by making it look like they were involved in an attack that had damaged Putin's image in the West.