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U.K. Investigators Visit Moscow in Litvinenko Probe

Four British detectives are in Moscow as an investigation of the poisoning death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko widens. Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is believed to have died from ingesting radioactive polonium-210. In a deathbed statement, he accused Putin of ordering his death.

One key witness the British officers hope to question is Andrei Lugovoi, a former Russian intelligence officer, who met with Litvinenko at a London hotel on the day he fell ill in November. Lugovoi has told Russian television he's not involved, but is ready to cooperate with investigators.

"I contacted Scotland Yard myself. I said I was waiting for them in Moscow," Lugovoi says. "I'm not even considering returning to London because of the hysteria the western press has whipped up around the case."

Litvinenko's friends are urging British officers to question a jailed Russian intelligence officer who has accused the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, of creating a hit squad to silence Russian emigres in Britain. But the Russian prison service said Tuesday that British investigators would not be given access to Mikhail Trepashkin.

Russia has denied charges it is killing enemies abroad and the Putin administration is reacting angrily to suspicions that the FSB -- the successor to the KGB -- assassinated Litvinenko.

Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika told reporters Tuesday that it's nonsense to assume the rare polonium-210 isotope came from Russia. But since access to polonium is limited to state agencies, many suspect FSB involvement.

Gerald Burke, a former assistant director of the National Security Agency, says it's imperative for Putin to cooperate with this probe.

"The thing that would tend to neutralize the damage that's already been done by this bad publicity is to say, 'I'm going to personally direct this investigation or have it directed under my personal aegis and I'm going to assist the British government to the full extent of my capacities and really go after this thing,'" Burke says.

Former CIA officer Jack Platt says current or former FSB members may have poisoned Litvinenko to scare Moscow's critics, but they botched the operation.

"They could not have predicted that here would lie a man who's slowly but surely dying, and yet he has an opportunity to be interviewed by police and detectives -- I'm told for up to 20 hours," Platt says. "Don't we all realize that dying testimony carries greater weight in any society?"

Meanwhile, a former Russian prime minister who was thought to have been another poisoning victim has been released from a Russian hospital.

Yegor Gaidar is described as the main architect of Russia's post-Soviet reforms. Last month, he fainted while attending a conference in Ireland, on the day after Litvinenko died. Many were quick to see a link.

Doctors in Ireland said Gaidar's health had suffered radical changes, but they concluded he wasn't exposed to radiation. Russian doctors agreed, but just what he was exposed to remains a question.

Gaidar's spokesman says doctors can't explain the illness, and suspect some form of toxic poisoning.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

British authorities are following the radiation as they investigate the poisoning of a Russian man. Traces of radiation lead back to Russia from London where former spy, Alexander Litvinenko, died.

And that's where the investigation is moving as NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Four British counterterrorism officers arrived in Moscow yesterday. One of the key potential witnesses they hope to question is Andrei Lugovoi, a former Russian intelligence officer who met Litvinenko in a London hotel on November 1st, the day he fell ill.

Lugovoi denies involvement, telling Russian television he's ready to fully cooperate with the investigators.

Mr. ANDREI LUGOVOI (Former Russian Intelligence Officer): (Through translator) I contacted Scotland Yard, myself. I said I was waiting for them in Moscow. I'm not even considering returning to London because of the hysteria the Western press has whipped up around this case.

FEIFER: Litvinenko, a vocal Kremlin critic, died from ingesting radioactive polonium 210 last month. In a deathbed statement, he blamed Russian president Vladimir Putin for ordering his death. Russian authorities deny the charge. Putin said the poisoning was a provocation by his critics, seeking to discredit Russia. And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on Monday, warned London not to politicize Litvinenko's death.

Mr. SERGEI LAVROV (Foreign Minister, Russia): (Speaking Foreign Language)

FEIFER: I told Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett the only thing we're concerned about, he said, is to avoid speculation about this question. Litvinenko's friends are urging the British investigators to speak to a jailed Russian intelligence officer, who's accused the Russian Security Service - the FSP - of creating a hit squad to kill Russian émigrés in Britain.

But Western experts say it's difficult to believe Putin would have sanctioned the killing. Gerard Burke, a former assistant director of the U.S. National Security Agency, said it's imperative for Putin to cooperate with the investigation.

Mr. GERARD BURKE (Former Assistant Director, U.S. National Security Agency): The thing that would maybe tend to neutralize the damage that's already been done by this bad publicity, is to say, you know, I'm going to personally direct this investigation or have it directed under my personal aegis; and I'm going to assist the British government, note - to the full extent on my capacities, and really go after this thing.

FEIFER: The British investigators have their work cut out for them. Most believe elements within the FSP top the suspect list, because only state agencies have access to polonium.

Former CIA officer, Jack Platt, says current FSP members or Rogue former officers may have killed Litvinenko to intimidate Moscow's critics overseas. He says the operation was expensive and well-planned, but that the execution was completely botched.

Mr. JACK PLATT (Former CIA Officer): They could not have predicted that here would lie a man, who's slowly but surely dying, and yet he has an opportunity to be interviewed by police and detectives - I'm told, for up to 20 hours. Don't we all realize that dying testimony carries great weight in any society?

FEIFER: The Russian media have publicized a wide array of theories. Some believed Kremlin hardliners wanted to trap Putin into making a formal break with the West. Others say criminal groups acted to stop Litvinenko's investigations of their activities, or even that Litvinenko accidentally contaminated himself while smuggling polonium.

But what scientists saying the radioactive isotope can be traced to the reactor in which it was produced, some hope there's a chance Litvinenko's death can be explained.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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