Russian businessman named as radiation source in murder case

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The international hunt for the killers of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent, took a new twist last night as it emerged that a Russian businessman was being investigated as the source of the radiation used in the murder.

Dimitry Kovtun, 41, a former soldier in the Soviet army, and one of three men who met Mr Litvinenko at a hotel on the day he was given a fatal dose of radiation, is the latest suspect in the case.

German police revealed that they had found traces of polonium-210 - the material used in the poisoning - at properties visited by Mr Kovtun in Hamburg before he flew to London to meet Mr Litvinenko.

Hamburg's chief prosecutor Martin Köhnke, commenting on Mr Kovtun, said there was now "a reasonable basis for suspicion that he may not just be a victim but could also be a perpetrator".

He added that the authorities were investigating him on suspicion that he may have handled radioactive material.

Mr Litvinenko, a critic of President Vladimir Putin, whose regime he blames for his murder, was given a massive dose of radiation on 1 November.

His widow, Marina, spoke publicly this weekend for the first time, and blamed the Russian authorities for his death. Russiahas strongly denied carrying out the murder.

Scotland Yard believe Mr Litvinenko was probably poisoned twice, once at a sushi restaurant in Mayfair, and then at the Millennium Hotel, also in central London, where he had a brief meeting with Mr Kovtun and two of his business partners.

Anti-terrorist officers from the Metropolitan Police, are in Russia trying to interview witnesses, including Mr Kovtun, who is in a Moscow hospital where he is said to be suffering from a low dose of radiation poisoning.

If detectives can prove that Mr Kovtun, who denies any wrongdoing, handled polonium-210 before Mr Litvinenko was poisoned, then there would be a strong conspiracy case against him. Detectives from Scotland Yard were reported to be travelling to Germany to investigate the latest findings.

The potential breakthrough came as Hamburg state prosecutors confirmed that that they had found traces of polonium-210 in city locations visited by Mr Kovtun. The radiation was discovered in a flat belonging to Mr Kovtun's former wife, Marina Wall, 31; on documents handed by Mr Kovtun; in a car that he had used; and at the home of his former mother in law.

German authorities said Mr Kovtun spent the night at his ex- wife's flat in the district of Ottensen on 31 October. He flew to London the next day.

Werner Jantosch, the Hamburg police chief heading the case, said: "He [Mr Kovtun] may have been one of the culprits, although we think it is unlikely that the murder plot was hatched in Hamburg." Police said there were no traces of polonium-210 on the flight that Mr Kovtun took from Hamburg to London.

Mr Kovtun, a German residence permit holder, served as a Russian soldier in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he married a German woman whom he later divorced.

German police said Mr Kovtun worked as a business consultant and advised Western companies that wanted to set up operations in Russia.

Widow tells of last visit to spy

The widow of the murdered former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko spoke yesterday about her husband's last hours. Marina Litvinenko, 44, left, said his final words to her were: "Marina, I love you so much. Even until the last day, and the day before when he became unconscious, I thought he would be okay," she told The Mail on Sunday. "We were both completely sure that he would recover. We had been talking about bone-marrow transplants and looking to the future."

She left her tired and weak husband at night. University College London Hospital telephoned her the following evening at about 9pm, telling her to come as quickly as possible. But by the time she arrived her husband had died.

Jason Bennetto