Cobra meets over fears about assassination squad

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John Reid, the Home Secretary, chaired an emergency meeting of Cobra, the Downing Street crisis team, yesterday over fears that the murder of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko could mean an assassination squad is targeting dissidents in London.

Senior officials from health protection, the Department of Health, the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence services were summoned to the Cobra meeting, underlining the seriousness with which the Government viewed the assassination with radioactive material.

Mr Reid was briefed on the risks to the public health from the radioactive material used to poison Mr Litvinenko. NHS Direct was informed how to handle panic calls by members of the public worried they could be at risk.

Europe's growing anxiety over Moscow's slide from democratic values overshadowed an EU-Russia summit yesterday in Helsinki as the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, struck a defiant and assertive tone.

He said: "I believe that the British colleagues understand their responsibility for protecting citizens' lives in the UK. That includes Russian Federation citizens when they are in Britain. So I would hope that the British authorities would not contribute to instigating a political scandal."

Mr Putin queried the authenticity of a statement, said to have been signed by the ex-spy on his deathbed, blaming the Russian President. "If this note really appeared before the death of Mr Litvinenko, I wonder why it wasn't published while he was alive," he said. "If it appeared after his death I don't think there are any comments that can be made."

"This clearly suggests that the Government is concerned that an assassination squad is operating in London and they are organising the forces of law and order against it," said Patrick Mercer, the Conservative spokesman on homeland security.

"It shows that there is a much greater security issue at stake than just some disaffected individual being attacked. They are obviously concerned that it was a state-sponsored hit."

Cobra met overnight in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. The Home Secretary later said in a statement that the death was "believed to be linked to the presence of a radioactive substance" in Mr Litvinenko's body. He added that the police had called in expert assistance to search for any residual radioactive material at the dead man's home and the sushi bar he visited.