Poisoned spy became Muslim on deathbed, says Chechen dissident

Alexander Litvinenko grew up among Muslims and died a Muslim, one of the leading mourners at his funeral claimed yesterday.

Akhmed Zakayev, a former leader of the Chechen resistance who lives in exile in London, claimed yesterday that he personally witnessed Mr Litvinenko's deathbed conversion - an event that other friends deny ever took place.

"I was a witness when Alexander told his father that he wanted to convert to Islam, that he would like to be buried according to Islamic tradition, and that afterwards he would like his body to be taken for reburial in the Caucasus, in Chechnya," Mr Zakayev said. "A Muslim cleric visited him at his bedside several hours before his death. There is a sura (chapter) from the Koran, that has to be recited over a dying Muslim, and the cleric recited that."

Mr Litvinenko's family lived in Nalchik, a town in the North Caucasus inhabited by Muslim nations conquered by the Russians in the 19th century, including the Chechens. Mr Zakayev believes Mr Litvinenko's murder is linked to his support for the Chechens.

Talking exclusively to The Independent, he claimed that the Russian government has a £1.5bn budget for its PR work worldwide, a large part of which he claims has been directed into undermining the reputation of Mr Litvinenko, who died from radiation poisoning five weeks ago.

"If he had been killed by any other means - a car accident, a gunshot, anything - it would have been a story for a day, and that would have been it. Russia now has to wipe its image clean of polonium," Mr Zakayev said.

He forecast that "newspapers close to Tony Blair's government" will be offered allegations to draw attention away from the suspicion that the ex-KGB officer was killed because he was undermining President Vladimir Putin.

During the G8 summit in St Petersburg in July, it emerged that Russiahad hired PR professionals to advise on its image. Mr Zakayev claimed that Tony Blair is almost as anxious as the government in Moscow for the scandal to die down, because of the harm it could do to the UK's relations with Russia.

"I understand very well that even if all the dissidents were killed off at a rate of one a day - including me - the Government's priority will still be to maintain good relations with Russia and with Putin," he said. "But now Litvinenko's killing isn't just the killing of a Russian dissident, it has direct implications for the security of this country ... because he was a citizen."