Russian defector poisoned in London 'on orders of Moscow'

In a real-life drama straight out of a Le Carré novel, former agent has lunch with a mysterious informant in Piccadilly, is told of official plot behind journalist's murder - and then, within hours, collapses in agony

A Russian security service defector is in a critical condition at a London hospital after being poisoned in a plot worthy of a Cold War novel by John le Carré.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former lieutenant-colonel with Russia's FSB security service and a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin's regime, fled to Britain in 2000, saying he feared for his life. Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police said he was in a "serious but stable" condition after tests confirmed traces of rat poison called thallium in his body .

The 44-year-old defector, who was sentenced in absentia for treason in Russia, was taken to hospital when he began vomiting violently. His hair has also fallen out and it is understood his kidneys have been damaged by the effects of the dose of thallium. The heavy metal, which is hard to obtain in the UK, damages the nervous system and lungs. Colourless and odourless, it is used in rat poisons in the Middle East.

Mr Litvinenko has told associates he became ill after lunching in a sushi restaurant in London on 1 November, the sixth anniversary of his arrival in Britain. He gained full British citizenship last month.

The defector's lunch companion was an Italian information-peddler called Mario Scaramella, who is alleged to have links with Russian intelligence. He is said to have given Mr Litvinenko documents purporting to show that Russian agents were implicated in the murder of the Russian investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in Moscow last month.

Ms Politkovskaya was best known for her revelations about Russian abuses in Chechnya, a cause Mr Litvinenko had taken up. Last week an internet news agency, Chechenpress, published an interview with him. He refused to say who he believed had poisoned him, but said the documents he was given named FSB agents in connection with the journalist's murder.

"Judging by these documents, the tracks of the murder of Politkovskaya are leading to the Russian FSB," he said. He promised to hand the documents to Ms Politkovskaya's paper, Novaya Gazeta, when he recovers, but a specialist told the IoS yesterday that his chances of survival were "50-50" based on the levels of poison that he has ingested.

Professor John Henry, a toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital in London, said that thallium is used in heart scans to record information on blood supply, but can be lethal.

"It [thallium] hits everything at once but different parts of the body take different times to crumble. It can affect the heart and the effects are extremely painful."

The former security agent became seriously ill within two hours of the meeting with Mr Scaramella. There is no suggestion that Mr Scaramella had anything to do with the poisoning. Mr Litvinenko believes the toxin was in a cup of coffee. Police are thought to have him under heavy guard, fearing further attempts on his life.

"We can confirm that officers from the specialist crime directorate are investigating a suspicious poisoning," said a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police. "No arrests have been made."

Mr Litvinenko is wanted in Russia on charges that he exceeded his authority while in the FSB and illegally stored explosives at his home. He denies the charges, and has said they are fabricated.

He has been a controversial figure in Russia since he claimed in 1998 that his FSB bosses had ordered him to assassinate the Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. He fell out with the Kremlin and fled to Britain, where he was given political asylum. The FSB categorically denied the claim.

In 2003 the former security officer tipped off Scotland Yard about what he said was a plot to kill President Vladimir Putin. The police arrested two Russians, but released them a few days later on condition that they returned to Moscow.

Over the years he has levelled serious charges against his former spymasters. He wrote a book alleging the security service blew up Moscow apartment blocks in 1999, killing hundreds, and framed Chechen separatists for the crime. He has also suggested the terrorists responsible for the 2004 Beslan school siege may have been carrying out FSB orders, and that al-Qa'ida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a former KGB agent.

Poisons: The deadly toxins, from ricin to dioxin

Political poisonings appear to have one factor in common - nobody believes the victim, at first. Georgi Markov, above, the Bulgarian dissident who was stabbed in the leg on Waterloo Bridge in 1978, encountered scepticism when he claimed he had been a target of Bulgarian secret agents. But after his death three days later, it emerged that a specially adapted umbrella had been used to inject him with the deadly ricin poison.

Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, was mocked by opponents when he said he had been poisoned during the 2004 election campaign. Tests showed he had been dosed with dioxin, a nerve agent which disfigured him.

In South Africa, Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who died in custody in 1977, was allegedly poisoned with thallium. There were claims of a plot to use the same poison on Nelson Mandela when he was on Robben Island.

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