Germany launches inquiry into 'poisoning' of ex-KGB agent

German state prosecutors yesterday said they had opened a preliminary investigation to establish whether a dissident former Russian KGB Colonel and his wife who emigrated to Berlin three months ago had been poisoned.

The inquiry followed recent reports in the German weekly magazine Focus which said that doctors had discovered dangerously high levels of mercury in the blood of the two emigrés after they arrived in Germany from Russia.

"An investigation has been opened. It is being carried out by a department dealing with politically motivated crimes," a spokesman for the public prosecutors' office in the German capital said.

Focus reported earlier this month that doctors had detected abnormally high mercury levels in the blood of Viktor Kalashnikov, a former colonel in the Soviet KGB, and in his historian wife, Marina Kalashnikov.

Both were said to have suffered serious health problems, with Marina losing half of her hair and Viktor suffering considerable weight loss. Medical experts have recommended that the couple undergo further tests and that their health should be monitored closely, the magazine said.

Mr Kalashnikov is reported to be convinced that the Kremlin is responsible for the couple's health problems. In an interview with Focus, he told the magazine: "Moscow poisoned us."

The couple have worked as freelance journalists since the 1990s, publishing articles that have angered the Kremlin. They arrived in Berlin in September.

The Kalashnikovs' fate has been compared to that of the dissident Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered by radioactive poisoning in London in 2006.