Former FSB Lt. Colonel Alexander Litvinenko with his controversial book
Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within
London -- Former Federal Security Service (FSB) Colonel Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, has apparently been poisoned with traces of the toxic metal thallium. Tonight the 41 year-old Russian exile is being treated in the intensive care unit of London's University College Hospital, and the staff has added extra security for Litvinenko's protection. Litvinenko is being fed intravenously, and has lost nearly all of his hair. Doctors treating him say his white blood cell count is down to nearly zero. This high profile poisoning case has drawn comparisons in Western media outlets to the dioxin poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, shortly before he was elected President of Ukraine in 2004.
Litvinenko became violently ill following a meeting on November 1 with a man who claimed that he had information on the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya. Litvinenko met his contact, an Italian academic named Mario Scaramella, at the Itsu sushi restaurant near London's Picadilly district. Mr. Scaramella, an expert on the history KGB and FSB spy activities in his native Italy, contacted the British Embassy in Rome when he found out about Litvinenko's illness. He is now in hiding and seeking protective custody as a material witness to the crime.
Mr. Litvinenko told his friend Alex Goldfarb that he had met two Russian men for drinks shortly before his sushi lunch, and had described the suspects to the London police. One of the suspects was unknown to Mr. Litvinenko, and it is still unclear why he agreed to meet with the two men.
Litvinenko is best known in the West as the author of Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within. In his book, co-authored with the Russian historian Yuri Felshinsky, Litvinenko accuses the FSB of planting bombs in several Moscow apartment buildings in 1999 as part of a plot to blame the explosions on Chechen terrorists. The wave of bombings sparked the Second Chechen War. In 2004, two Chechens, Adam Dekushev and Jusuf Krymshankhalov, were convicted by a Moscow court of planting the explosives in the apartment blocs. Russian prosecutors claimed that the bombers were trained by the Saudi jihadist Ibn Khattab, who was later killed by Russian security forces. In a 2002 interview with Echo Moskvy radio, Litvinienko claimed that he had been in contact with a third Chechen suspect wanted for his alleged role in the attacks, Achemez Gochiyayev. According to Litvinenko, Mr. Gochiyayev affirmed his innocence and blamed FSB agents for the bombings.
Litvinenko resigned as a Lieutenant Colonel from the FSB in the mid-1990s, alleging that his superiors in the newly formed security service had ordered him to kill the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. At that time, Berezovsky had become the first billionaire in Russia and acquired enormous influence in President Yeltsin's kitchen cabinet of advisors known as "the Family".
By the late 1990s, Litvinenko faced multiple counts of prosecution for divulging state secrets and sought political asylum in Great Britain. He joined a circle of Ã©migrÃ©s that included Berezovsky, the legendary KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, and the chief spokesman for the "Chechen resistance", Akhmed Zakayev.
Litvinenko has been a persistent critic of the Russian government for several years. After Anna Politovskaya was murdered on October 7, he accused Putin of personally ordering her death. For his part, Berezovsky has claimed that only security services like the FSB have access to the toxic thallium compound that was used to poison Litvinenko, though the doctors on the case have told reporters that thallium compounds can be found in some types of rat poison sold outside of the UK.
Both the Russian Embassy in London and FSB spokesmen in Moscow have strongly denied any involvement in the crime. Sky News quotes Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov dismissing accusations against the Russian security services: "Claims originating in London are bordering on stark raving madness and are not worthy of the Kremlin's official reaction."
A photo released by Alexander Litvinenko's family to the press