Russian prosecutors hope investigators can go to Britain to probe Litvinenko poisoning

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Russian authorities hope to receive permission as early as next week to send investigators to Britain to probe the poisoning death of former security agent Alexander Litvinenko, the chief prosecutor's office said yesterday.

Russian prosecutors have asked to send a team to Britain to make inquiries in the poisoning case, which has damaged the image of the country and President Vladimir Putin, and have said they want to question figures including fierce Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky.

The Prosecutor General's Office has received no official response but hopes for a positive answer soon, possibly Monday or Tuesday, a spokesman told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name to the media.

The remarks came after the British weekly The Observer reported Sunday that British Home Secretary John Reid had signed a document that would allow Russian authorities to send investigators to Britain. The Home Office refused to comment.

Litvinenko, once an agent in the Federal Security Service or FSB, the Soviet KGB's main successor, fled to Britain and was granted asylum after accusing his superiors of ordering him to kill Berezovsky, a Russian tycoon and one-time Kremlin insider who also has been granted British citizenship.

Litvinenko was a vocal Kremlin critic who accused Russian authorities of being behind deadly 1999 apartment building bombings that stoked support for a renewed offensive against separatists in Chechnya. He died in a London hospital Nov. 23, and doctors said he had been poisoned with polonium-210, a rare radioactive isotope.

British investigators traveled to Moscow in December and participated in the questioning of Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, two businessmen who were formerly in the Russian security services and who met with Litvinenko in London on Nov. 1, hours before he said he fell ill.

Amid uncertainty about the level of cooperation provided by Moscow, which has said it would not extradite any citizen charged by Britain in the case, Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika said last month that British investigators want to return to Russia to continue the probe and hinted they would only be permitted to do so if Russian authorities were allowed to investigate in Britain.

Litvinenko's widow, Marina, has sent a letter to Putin suggesting that Russia is not providing British authorities with full cooperation.

In the letter, dated Jan. 31 and provided to The Associated Press by Berezovsky associate Alex Goldfarb, Marina Litvinenko told Putin that "if you do not make every effort to help the British authorities in the search for those guilty of this terrible crime, I can only suppose that you have something to hide."

Russian prosecutors have said they have asked to interview more than 100 people, and Chaika singled out Berezovsky as one of them. Goldfarb said Berezovsky believes the Russian request to investigate in Britain is a "stunt" aimed to hamper the British probe, but would agree to meet with Russian investigators if provided adequate security.

In a deathbed statement, Litvinenko accused Putin of being behind his killing. The accusation sparked widespread international speculation about the possibility of Russian government involvement at a time when Putin has faced Western criticism on issues ranging from energy supplies to the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic who was fatally shot in October.

Litvinenko's accusation sparked angry denials and a campaign by Russian officials, pro-Kremlin lawmakers and state-run media suggesting that Kremlin enemies abroad, such as Berezovsky, could be responsible.

Putin said Thursday that he puts little stock in a theory - aired by a top aide, among others - that the killings of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya were part of a plot to discredit him, and said that only the courts could determine who poisoned Litvinenko. However, he said that "fugitive oligarchs" - a reference to Berezovsky and others - are seeking to undermine Russia.

Allies of Berezovsky, meanwhile, have pointed the finger at Lugovoi and Kovtun, in part citing traces of polonium-210 that German authorities say they found in locations in Hamburg visited by Kovtun just before he flew to London for the Nov. 1 meeting.

Yuri Felshtinsky, the co-author with Litvinenko of a book detailing claims the FSB was behind the 1999 apartment bombings, alleged in an interview on the British Broadcasting Corp.'s "Sunday AM" program that the Russian security agency killed Litvinenko. He claimed that Lugovoi and Kovtun were involved and asserted that both are current FSB officers.

Lugovoi and Kovtun deny involvement in Litvinenko's death.