German Expert Doubts Russian Connection to Polonium Death | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.12.2006
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German Expert Doubts Russian Connection to Polonium Death

A German radiation expert shed doubt on the Russian connection to the polonium-210 poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, saying it was too obvious to be credible.

Investigators of the Federal Agency for Radiation Protection examine a BMW car

German police found traces of alpha radiation in Hamburg

Sebastian Pflugbeil, president of the German Society for Radiation Protection, said he would not rule out the possibility that those who poisoned Litvinenko had deliberately strewn traces of the isotope in London and Hamburg to mislead people.

"If you keep polonium in a tightly shut vial, you can transport it without contamination and don't leave any dirty trail," he told German public broadcaster ARD. "Either these killers were rank amateurs, or, and I think this is also plausible, a trail has been deliberately created to cast suspicion in a certain direction."

According to Pflugbeil, there were far less obtrusive ways to kill someone than polonium poisoning -- especially for espionage agencies, who have experience in killing defectors.

All the way to Moscow

Sebastian Pflugbeil

Sebastian Pflugbeil does not believe in the Russian connection

"What is remarkable here is the way it was done," Pflugbeil said. "Secret agents are normally trained to kill without leaving any evidence.

"But in this case, it's not just a trail," added Pflugbeil, a physicist who has previously studied how East German secret agents abused radioactive material. "They have practically bulldozed a superhighway all the way to Moscow. They wanted to make a spectacle of it."

He said he knew of no case in which secret services had used polonium to kill an opponent.

The Hamburg connection

Apartment building

Kovtun spent two nights in his ex-wife's apartment in Hamburg

The probe into the radioactive poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko on Monday homed in on two Russians he met at a London hotel the day he fell ill, as relatives of one of them showed were believed to show signs of contamination.

British detectives questioned a former KGB bodyguard, Andrei Lugovoi, in Moscow, while police followed a trail of polonium 210 left in Germany by his associate, Dmitry Kovtun.

Kovtun, who arrived in Germany on Oct. 28 on board an Aeroflot flight from Moscow, spent two nights at his ex-wife's apartment in Hamburg where she, her two children aged three and one, and her boyfriend came into contact with the radioactive substance.

No danger

Dmitry Kovtun

Dmitry Kovtun is a key figure in the poisoning investigation of Alexander Litvinenko

Kovtun's family was, at first, believed to have been contaminated, but the German Federal Agency for Radiation Protection said on Tuesday that this was not the case.

"Currently, our investigation tells us that we can definitely rule out any danger for the affected persons," said Gerald Kirchner, the German official in charge of the case.

"The level of contamination in the apartment corresponds roughly to the radiation that a smoker gets exposed to when he or she smokes several packs of cigarettes or strong cigars," he added.

Hamburg prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation against Kovtun on charges of bringing a radioactive substance into the country and said they believe the Russian businessman was "more a perpetrator than a victim."

He is believed to be suffering from radioactive poisoning in a Moscow clinic but there have been conflicting reports about the state of his health.

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