MOSCOW – A private facility that trains security personnel used pictures of poisoned Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko's face for target practice during a competition for special forces, the center's chief said on Tuesday.
In video circulating the Internet, trainees dressed in camouflage maneuver between slats in a wall, leap through an obstacle course, then tumble to a semi-sitting position with outstretched arms aiming their weapons at a black-and-white target showing Alexander Litvinenko's face. Several black holes appear on the target near the ex-spy's nose before the video goes black.
Sergei Lysyuk, Vityaz Center's chief, said the video is from 2002 and shows military recruits. He said he was unaware the target depicted Litvinenko, who died of radiation poisoning after eating at a sushi restaurant.
The former spy was an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and from his deathbed accused the leader of pulling the strings in a plot to kill him.
"The fact that it was Litvinenko, we only found out later from the press," Lysyuk said. "We did not shoot at Litvinenko; we shot at a target."
Use of the target at the center, which held a competition for Russian special forces, became known this week after Russian media published photographs of Sergei Mironov, head of the Russian parliament's upper house, visiting the center in early November.
His visit, to present awards in a competition for Interior Ministry special forces, came about a week after Litvinenko fell ill; one photo shows the Litvinenko target in the background behind Mironov.
Lysyuk insisted his company does not normally hold such contests and was granting a favor to former Interior Ministry colleagues, whose own training ground was being repaired.
Litvinenko, once an agent in the Federal Security Service, the Soviet KGB's main successor, fled to Britain and was granted asylum after accusing his superiors of ordering him to kill Boris Berezovsky, a Russian tycoon and one-time Kremlin insider who also has been granted British citizenship.
Dmitry Peskov, a senior Kremlin spokesman, said using a person's face as a shooting range "was ethically incorrect," but stressed it was that company's responsibility and insisted government troops were not involved in the exercises.
"There is no talk of such shooting ranges being used by Russian special forces or by the Vityaz unit," Peskov told AP in a telephone interview. "This [company] has no relation to the elite Vityaz troops."
Also Tuesday, two key figures in the Litvinenko investigation said in a TV interview that they would consider going to Britain if requested by investigators.
Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun met with Litvinenko in London on Nov. 1, hours before he said he fell ill; Litvinenko died on Nov. 23 and doctors said he had been poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope.
Kovtun and Lugovoi were questioned in Moscow in interrogations observed by Scotland Yard investigators last month, and recent British media reports have claimed Lugovoi is seen as the prime suspect.
Lugovoi, in an interview with the government-funded satellite channel Russia Today, said the British reports were lies.
"I stress that I remain a witness in the Litvinenko case," he said.
Russia has said it would not extradite any citizen charged by Britain in the case. But Kovtun, when asked if he would go to Britain if investigators there requested it, said "we will think about this." Lugovoi added: "Never say 'never.'"
Lugovoi and Kovtun, businessmen who were formerly in the Russian security services, were hospitalized for suspected radiation poisoning in December. They said in the interview that their health is satisfactory but declined to give details.
The Prosecutor General's office in December opened an investigation into the possible poisoning of Kovtun.
Russian news media have widely suggested Litvinenko was killed by Putin opponents in an attempt to tarnish the Kremlin.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.