Scotland Yard has launched an investigation into an audacious attempt to murder – using a deadly poison – a leading Russian defector at a restaurant in London.
Alexander Litvinenko defected to Britain six years ago
Alexander Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian secret service and a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was seriously ill under armed guard at a London hospital last night.
Mr Litvinenko, 50, who used to work for the Federal Security Bureau (FSB, the former KGB), fell ill after meeting a contact at Itsu, a sushi restaurant in Piccadilly. The woman journalist claimed to have information on the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, 48, the outspoken journalist who was killed at her Moscow apartment last month.
A close friend of Mr Litvinenko said last night: “Alexander has no doubt that he was poisoned at the instigation of the Russian government.” He has been living at a secret address in London with his wife and son because he feared he might be targeted by political opponents.
Mr Litvinenko is thought to have been poisoned with thallium, a colourless and odourless liquid that is often used to kill rats. It has been used in previous murder attempts of political opponents.
Sources close to the investigation said last night that the poison has attacked Mr Litvinenko’s central nervous system and there are fears that he will never make a full recovery. His condition was described last night as “serious but stable”.
The crime invoked memories of the murder of Georgi Markov, 49, the prize-winning Bulgarian author and broadcaster, who was poisoned as he waited with commuters on Waterloo Bridge in 1978. Mr Markov felt a pain in his thigh and three days later he was dead: the murder weapon was an umbrella, partly developed by the KGB, which fired a pellet the size of a pinhead, containing the poison ricin.
Mr Litvinenko defected to Britain six years ago but only became a British citizen last month. He is regarded as a traitor in his native Russia and friends suspect the FSB of trying to murder him.
Mr Litvinenko arranged to meet a woman journalist at Itsu in Piccadiily
He went to meet the woman journalist at Itsu on November 1 after she claimed to have information about the shooting of Miss Politkovskaya, also a fierce critic of President Putin. The next day, Mr Litvinenko complained of feeling unwell and was admitted to hospital. It was thought he had nothing more than a serious stomach upset but in recent days his condition has deteriorated. Friends say the journalist may have been a genuine contact but that political opponents may have discovered the venue for their meeting and slipped the poison into his meal or drink.
Tatiane Assis, the manager of Itsu, said that two detectives visited the restaurant yesterday. “They asked if we had CCTV. We said we didn’t and they left without explaining why they had called.” There is no suggestion that the restaurant, or its staff, had anything to do with the poisoning.