MOSCOW -- Investigators here questioned a key witness yesterday in the radioactive poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, as four more possible victims of contamination were hospitalized for tests - these in Germany.
The most recent potential victims of radioactive polonium-210 were the former wife of Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun, her boyfriend and her two children, ages 1 and 3. Kovtun and a second Russian, Andrei Lugovoi, met with Litvinenko in London hours before he fell ill Nov. 1 and have emerged as central figures in the investigation.
German police have followed a trail of polonium that Kovtun left in Hamburg in the days before he flew to Britain for his meeting with Litvinenko. Officials say they have found traces of polonium-210 in the passenger seat of the BMW that picked up Kovtun when he arrived in Hamburg on Oct. 28; on a couch in the ex-wife's apartment, where he spent the night Oct. 30; in her mother's home; and on a document Kovtun signed at the immigration office to update his residency. Yesterday, they said they had found traces of radioactive elements on the clothing of the ex-wife's boyfriend.
Police said Kovtun is under criminal investigation for bringing the radioactive element into Germany.
"He appeared to have been in contact with polonium. We are considering him as a suspect," said Hamburg state prosecutor Martin Koehnke. "We have to establish whether he was poisoned himself or carried the polonium into the country." He added that there was a "reasonable basis for suspicion that he may not just be a victim, but could also be a perpetrator."
Authorities said one theory could be that Kovtun was exposed while packaging the polonium-210 before his meeting with Litvinenko.
"We assume he had polonium-210 in his body" when he arrived in Germany, said Elmar Lillpopp, an investigator with the German Federal Police. Kovtun is not believed to have returned to Germany once he left Nov. 1.
Detectives from Scotland Yard arrived in Hamburg yesterday to work with German authorities on the case. German authorities have dubbed their task force in the case "The Third Man," an allusion to the Graham Greene novel of the same name and a reference to Kovtun's being the third person at the London meeting, which took place at the bar of the Millennium Hotel in London's expensive Mayfair district.
In Moscow, investigators questioned Lugovoi, the other Russian present at the meeting.
"I was questioned by representatives of the Russian prosecutor general's office in the presence of Scotland Yard detectives," Lugovoi told the Russian news agency Interfax. "I gave full answers to all questions asked by the investigators. I am ready to meet with Russian prosecutor's office representatives and Scotland Yard detectives again."
Lugovoi and Kovtun are reported to be at a hospital in Moscow, suffering the effects of radiation exposure. Kovtun is believed to be the more seriously ill, and there have been conflicting reports about whether he is in critical condition.
Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank, said: "Given all the emerging evidence, it seems quite clear that Kovtun and Lugovoi brought polonium-210 to London.
"Now they are hidden from the world behind the walls of a highly secure medical establishment. Now the fate of these people is being decided in a Kremlin consumed with panic as to what to do next in the face of the growing heap of hard evidence."
David Holley and Jeffrey Fleishman write for the Los Angeles Times.