Russian's account further

clouds poisoning mystery

Russian says he, too, was a victim

 

By Steven Lee Myers and Alan Cowell
International Herald Tribune

 

MOSCOW Dmitri Kovtun arrived in London for the first time in his life on Oct. 16. He dropped his bags off at a hotel near Piccadilly Circus and immediately went to meet, also for the first time, Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer whose death from radioactive poisoning five weeks later became one of the most celebrated crimes of the post-Cold War era.

 

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 Moscow.

 

It also suggests that sorting out the truth may ultimately be impossible, given the complex, secretive web of associations that bind Russia to its willing and unwilling exiles in London.

 

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.

 

Here in Russia, by contrast, prosecutors are investigating what they called an attempted murder of Kovtun from polonium exposure. (The extent of Lugovoi's exposure is unclear.) In their few statements, prosecutors have suggested the possibility that Russian tycoons living in exile, including those who once ran Yukos Oil, ordered Litvinenko's killing and, evidently, tainted Kovtun in the process.

 

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 Grosvenor Street; Itsu, a sushi bar on Piccadilly; and the Best Western Premier Shaftesbury Hotel near Piccadilly Circus later showed traces of polonium 210, according to British health officials. So did the Parkes Hotel, where they checked in the next day, unhappy with their first choice of accommodations.

 

Kovtun, 41, spoke in Lugovoi's office on the second floor of the Radisson SAS Slavyanskaya, one of Moscow's fanciest hotels. Lugovoi, 40, spoke in a separate interview there, and he also went to lengths to challenge the perception that has taken root in the West.

 

Kovtun is the only person ever officially identified by a prosecutor in Germany as a possible suspect in the case, specifically as a suspect in the unlawful handling of polonium while he visited his former wife in Hamburg from Oct. 28 to Oct. 31, before returning to London. He denied that.

 

Whatever the source, however, the traces of polonium followed Kovtun back to Moscow aboard a British Airways flight and to Germany, where he once served as a captain in the Soviet Army's Main Intelligence Administration. He said he never served in the KGB or its domestic successor.

 

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 Moscow from Germany in 2003. It specializes in helping foreign companies including some in Britain to invest in Russia. Lugovoi, like Litvinenko, is a veteran of the KGB department that guarded Soviet and later Russian senior leaders.

 

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 London, including those at Erinys.

 

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 Russia.

 

Nevertheless, the three men met again on Oct. 17, having lunch at a Chinese restaurant.

 

After his visit to Germany, Kovtun returned to London on the morning of Nov. 1 aboard a plane belonging to an airline, Germanwings, that did not test for contamination, German officials have said.

 

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 as 58 Grosvenor Street, a short walk from the Mayfair Millennium Hotel, where the Russians were staying.

 

British health officials said last November that polonium traces were also found at 58 Grosvenor Street.

 

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 Moscow on Nov. 23, a few hours before Litvinenko died and before specialists determined that he had been exposed to polonium. Traces of polonium were later discovered at the embassy.

 

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.

 

Investigators in London and Moscow declined to discuss the case.

 

Steven Lee Myers reported from Moscow, and Alan Cowell from Moscow and London.

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