Russian's account further
clouds poisoning mystery
Lee Myers and Alan Cowell
International Herald Tribune
British investigators quickly zeroed in on Kovtun and an associate of his, Andrei Lugovoi, who both met with Litvinenko on Nov. 1, the day he fell ill. But Kovtun says they have it backward, maintaining that Oct. 16 was the day that Litvinenko exposed him to the poison, polonium 210.
"I am far from thinking that something was premeditated," Kovtun said. "I think things that were not premeditated were happening."
Much uncertainty still
shrouds Litvinenko's death on Nov. 23, but Kovtun's version — outlined in his
most extensive and detailed interview, and impossible to verify independently —
illustrates the starkly divergent view of the Litvinenko affair as seen from
It also suggests that sorting
out the truth may ultimately be impossible, given the complex, secretive web of
associations that bind
In British news media accounts not disputed by Scotland Yard, investigators have focused on a meeting that Kovtun and Lugovoi had with Litvinenko on Nov. 1. Together, the two have been portrayed as secret agents sent to avenge Litvinenko's betrayal of the KGB's domestic successor, the Federal Security Service.
Litvinenko's relatives and associates abroad, in turn, say the Kremlin or security services ordered Litvinenko's killing and are now trying to muddy public perceptions and hamper justice.
Whatever the truth of the case, Kovtun and Lugovoi, old schoolmates, friends and business associates, are at the center of what happened in London beginning the day that Kovtun arrived, traveling with Lugovoi and fulfilling a dream from his days of childhood English lessons "to see Westminster Abbey and other things" in London.
Everywhere they went on Oct.
16 — Erinys, an international security company on
Kovtun, 41, spoke in
Lugovoi's office on the second floor of the Radisson SAS Slavyanskaya, one of
Kovtun is the only person
ever officially identified — by a prosecutor in
Whatever the source, however,
the traces of polonium followed Kovtun back to
Kovtun said he could not explain how he had been exposed: "I had never had any contact with polonium or with any radioactive substance," he said. Nor would he speculate as to whether he believed Litvinenko had already been exposed somehow or whether he was carrying the material.
Nuclear experts said that if Litvinenko had absorbed a lethal dose on Oct. 16, the symptoms would have appeared almost immediately. That did not happen until the night of Nov. 1, after his meeting with Kovtun and Lugovoi.
Kovtun runs Global Project, a
business consulting company he founded after returning to
Both went on to work closely
with Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire tycoon. Lugovoi now owns Ninth Wave, a
security company. On their first visit in October, Kovtun and Lugovoi said,
Litvinenko seemed eager to introduce the Russians to his business contacts in
Kovtun said he did not have a
favorable first impression of Litvinenko. "He was very politicized," he said.
"If he had a chance to talk about politics, he would do it willingly. And he
spoke of absurd things." He did not elaborate on the subjects of Litvinenko's
talks, but he suggested that they included current affairs in
Nevertheless, the three men met again on Oct. 17, having lunch at a Chinese restaurant.
After his visit to
He and Lugovoi had not
planned to meet with Litvinenko that day, they said, but Litvinenko called them
insistently on Nov. 1 to arrange a meeting. Kovtun said he had been having
meetings at an investment company called Eco3 Capital, whose address is listed
British health officials said
last November that polonium traces were also found at
The three men agreed, at last, to meet later that afternoon at the Pine Bar in the Mayfair Millennium, where traces of polonium were found. Seven members of the bar staff were exposed to small, nonfatal doses.
Kovtun described Litvinenko as agitated. He said he looked unwell. "We did not speak with Litvinenko a long time, but he looked strange, and he was sitting next to me," he said. "He kept talking. He didn't close his mouth."
When their names first
surfaced, both men came forward and volunteered to meet with British
investigators. They met with officials at the British Embassy in
Kovtun went to the hospital for a test that showed he was "seriously polluted" with polonium, although he would not say exactly how much, citing his agreement with British and Russian investigators.
He was treated and feels fine now, he said, dismissing as a lie a report in December by the Interfax news agency that he had slipped into a coma.
Steven Lee Myers reported
from Moscow, and Alan Cowell from