Kremlin hits back with campaign to smear dead Russian spy

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The Independent Online

The Kremlin has launched an aggressive public relations war designed to undo the damage caused by its claimed involvement in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

After five weeks of allegations that the poisoning of the former KGB agent was sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin, state-controlled media in Moscow made a concerted attack on Mr Litvinenko's reputation ­ describing him as a hard-up fantasist whose death was part of a smear campaign against Russia.

The onslaught represented a reversal of the initial silence from the Russian media and senior officials about his death.

The state-controlled Channel One used its flagship crime programme, broadcast on Thursday evening, to lay a succession of accusations against the ex-spy, including the claim that he only fled to Britain in 2000 to escape arrest for his involvement in organised crime and extorting money from businessmen.

In a separate attack, Sergei Stepashin, the former head of the FSB security service, which employed Mr Litvinenko, said the assassination had been staged to damage the Kremlin. Mr Stepashin said: "It is apparent that those who wanted to tarnish the current Russian authorities, primarily the President, killed Litvinenko. I, as former Federal Security Service director, may state this for sure."

The counter-offensive came as a prominent exile and friend of Mr Litvinenko claimed that a large part of the £750m global PR budget set aside by Moscow has been directed into undermining the ex-spy's credibility.

Shortly before he died on 23 November from a massive dose of the radioactive isotope polonium-210, Mr Litvinenko dictated a statement in which he directly accused Mr Putin of ordering his murder.

Akhmed Zakayev, a former Chechen resistance leader now exiled in London, told The Independent: "There wouldn't have been such a scandal surrounding Litvinenko's death if polonium had not been found in his body. If he had been killed by any other means ­ a car accident, a gunshot, anything ­ it would have been a story for a day. Russia now has to wipe its image clean of polonium."

Evidence that a PR counter-attack was under way came in lengthy tape recordings broadcast by Channel One of conversations between Mr Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky, the exiled oligarch who was the former spy's ally and financial sponsor. The recordings sought to suggest that Mr Litvinenko was inventing allegations that would help his patron in return for "a fee". The programme, The Person and The Law, alleged that Mr Berezovsky had cut his monthly allowance to the former agent from £5,000 to £1,500 and he had money problems.

Mr Zakayev said there was evidence that Moscow was trying to plant stories against Mr Litvinenko in the British media, which it has accused of hysteria in its response to the poisoning. He said claims that Mr Litvinenko was trying to blackmail an unnamed oligarch in one Sunday newspaper had been made by a PR worker for a state-owned investment agency.

The battle to besmirch or lionise the memory of Mr Litvinenko came as Scotland Yard detectives were investigating whether the former KGB lieutenant-colonel was the victim of multiple attacks on 1 November ­ the day he fell ill. The Independent has learnt that toxicology tests have revealed two separate "spikes" of polonium-210 contamination, indicating that he was attacked twice.

Detectives believe that Mr Litvinenko could have been targeted at the Itsu sushi restaurant, where he met the Italian academic Mario Scaramella, and the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, where he met two Russian business contacts ­ Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun have also been contaminated with polonium-210 and are suffering from radiation sickness in a Moscow hospital.

The week's events

* SATURDAY: Andrei Lugovoi, one of three men to meet Mr Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel on 1 November, reveals he too has been contaminated.

* SUNDAY: Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, one of the UK's senior intelligence figures, points the finger at Moscow for the killing.

* MONDAY: Nine British detectives go to Moscow as part of the investigation.

* TUESDAY: The detectives are barred from personally questioning suspects.

* WEDNESDAY: Scotland Yard says death was murder. Radiation found at British embassy in Moscow.

* THURSDAY: Mr Litvinenko's funeral in Highgate Cemetery, north London. Russia opens inquiry into his murder and the attempted murder of Dmitry Kovtun, who he also met on 1 November.

* FRIDAY: Russia begins to discredit its former spy. Detectives say multiple poison attacks possible.