Polonium trail led British investigators to Lugovoy

LONDON (Reuters) - A trail of radioactive contamination -- from aircraft to hotels, restaurants, offices and even a soccer stadium -- led investigators time and again to one man as they probed the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

British prosecutors on Tuesday named Andrei Lugovoy, a Russian businessman who had worked for the Soviet KGB security service, as the man who murdered exiled dissident Litvinenko with radioactive polonium 210 in London last November.

Lugovoy has denied killing Litvinenko and on Tuesday dismissed the accusation as politically motivated. He has however acknowledged meeting Litvinenko on each of three separate visits to London last October.

Polonium proved a subtle and lethally effective poison -- it took doctors three weeks to identify it as the substance that gradually shut down Litvinenko’s organs and caused his excruciating death.

Polonium emits alpha particles and lodges in vital organs and tissues like the liver, kidneys and bone marrow, attacking them and leading to massive destruction of living cells.

But the rare radioactive element also left behind a path of evidence that enabled investigators to reconstruct the movements of key figures in the case.

Traces of polonium were found at the Parkes hotel where Lugovoy stayed from October 16-18 and the Sheraton Park Lane, which he visited from October 25 to 28, as well as on British Airways planes on which he flew from Moscow to London and back.

On October 31, he flew to London again to attend a soccer match the next day between CSKA Moscow and Arsenal at the Emirates stadium, where traces of radiation were also picked up.

Also on November 1, with fellow businessman Dmitry Kovtun, he met Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square.

Litvinenko later told friends he drank a cup of tea at the meeting; within hours, he had fallen seriously ill and three weeks later he was dead.

Staff and visitors to the Millennium were among at least 137 people who British health officials say, after extensive checks, were exposed to polonium. They say they might have inhaled it in dust or ingested it by touching contaminated crockery and then eating something themselves without washing their hands.

Lugovoy has not offered an explanation of why polonium was found at so many of the locations he visited, but has accused the British media of turning him into “some sort of monster”.

The discovery of polonium traces linked to Lugovoy and Kovtun before they met Litvinenko on November 1 has prompted speculation they brought the poison with them to London.

The difficulty and expense of obtaining polonium has fuelled charges by Kremlin critics that the security services ordered Litvinenko’s killing to silence a vocal dissident. Moscow has dismissed such accusations as ridiculous.