LONDON – The wife of an ex-KGB agent fatally poisoned in Britain and the Italian security expert he met the day he fell ill both showed traces of the same radioactive substance found in the dead man's body, friends and officials said Friday.
The inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko widened with the new positive test results, the evacuation of a hotel in southern England, and the sweep of an Irish hospital that treated a Russian opposition leader for what his aides described as poisoning. In Italy, the government sought to reassure the public there was no danger.
The Italian, Mario Scaramella, was hospitalized in protective police custody after tests confirmed he had been exposed to polonium-210, the rare isotope found in Litvinenko's body before he died Nov. 23.
"My son has been poisoned," the Italian's father, Amedeo Scaramella, said by telephone. He then said he was too distraught to talk and hung up.
Scaramella was exposed to a much lower level of radiation than Litvinenko, doctors treating him at London's University College Hospital said. He has shown "no symptoms of radiation poisoning," hospital spokesman Keith Paterson said.
Italian news agency ANSA reported that a female companion of Scaramella was being tested for traces of radiation but British health officials could not immediately confirm that.
Litvinenko's wife, Marina, was also "very slightly contaminated" by the radioactive substance found in her husband's body, the former KGB agent's friend, Alex Goldfarb, told The Associated Press. He said she did not need medical treatment.
Home Secretary John Reid confirmed that a member of Litvinenko's family had tested positive for signs of polonium-210, but he did not name the person. Pat Troop, chief executive of Britain's Health Protection Agency, said the relative faced a "very small" long-term health risk.
It was not immediately clear how Scaramella or Litvinenko's wife may have been exposed to the polonium-210. They could have come into contact directly with the substance or been exposed through contact with Litvinenko, who could have excreted trace amounts through his perspiration.
Litvinenko died Nov. 23 at a London hospital and pathologists, wearing protective suits and face-covering helmets to guard against radiation, began an autopsy Friday. Results were not expected for several days.
At the Nov. 1 meeting at a sushi restaurant with Litvinenko, Scaramella discussed an e-mail he received from a source naming the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist and Kremlin critic who was gunned down Oct. 7 in Moscow. The e-mail reportedly said Scaramella and Litvinenko were also on the hit list.
In a letter released Friday by human rights activists, a former Russian security officer — now jailed — said he had also warned Litvinenko about a government-sponsored death squad that intended to kill him and other Kremlin opponents.
Litvinenko, 43, a Kremlin critic who lived in Britain, died at a London hospital. In a deathbed statement, he blamed President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning — charges the Kremlin rejected as "sheer nonsense."
"Back in 2002, I warned Alexander Litvinenko that they set up a special team to kill him," the former security services officer, Mikhail Trepashkin, wrote in the letter dated Nov. 23 — the day of Litvinenko's death.
The letter was released by rights activists in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, the center of the Ural Mountains province where Trepashkin is serving his four-year sentence. Its authenticity could not immediately be confirmed.
A spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service, the KGB successor agency known by its Russian acronym FSB, refused to comment on Trepashkin's claim.
Trepashkin was arrested in October 2003 and convicted on charges of divulging state secrets while investigating allegations of FSB involvement in apartment bombings that killed about 300 people in Moscow and two other cities in 1999. The government blamed the explosions on Chechen-based rebels, but Litvinenko and other Kremlin critics alleged they were staged as a pretext for launching the current Chechnya war.
The FSB, where both Trepashkin and Litvinenko worked, alleged that Trepashkin had been recruited by British agents to collect compromising materials on the explosions with the aim of discrediting the Russian security agency.
Trepashkin said in his letter that after his arrest authorities put him in a cell contaminated with poisonous chemicals and threatened to kill him.
"Litvinenko and I aren't the last in this chain of victims of persecution," he wrote. "Maybe Litvinenko's death could make you believe in what he was saying."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was ready to answer concrete questions from Britain concerning Litvinenko's death, Russian news agencies reported.
"When the questions are formulated and sent through the existing channels, we will consider them thoroughly," Lavrov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency. "Now the ball is on the English side, and everything depends on the British investigators."
In Ireland, meanwhile, authorities tested Dublin's James Connolly Memorial Hospital, which treated former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar after he became violently ill during a conference last week — an incident his aides have described as another poisoning.
Irish health officials said tests were carried out to gauge any risks to public health, but said they found no traces of radiation.
Gaidar, 50, who served briefly as prime minister in the 1990s and is one of the leaders of a liberal opposition party, began vomiting and fainted during a conference in Ireland on Nov. 24.
His daughter, Maria, said in Moscow that his life was no longer in danger and he was slowly recovering.
"It seems to me that it's probable that he was poisoned. I think that it could be somehow connected with Litvinenko, I don't know how, but it seems so strangely connected in the time and even geographically connected," she told AP Television News.
Irish police have launched an inquiry into Gaidar's illness, but they said the investigation was routine and should not worry the public. "Tracing the movements of the subject and establishing the facts is the focus" of the investigation, police said.
Traces of radiation have been found at a dozen sites in Britain and five jetliners were being investigated for possible contamination.
A hotel in Sussex, southeastern England, was briefly evacuated Friday as police and health workers carried out tests for polonium-210. The hotel, set in 186 acres of countryside, had been visited by Scaramella after he met with Litvinenko, authorities said. It was later reopened.
"Police said they found nothing of any concern," said Graeme Bateman, the hotel's managing director.
Traces of radiation were found on three British Airways planes that have traveled the Moscow-London route since Nov. 1.
In 1998, Litvinenko publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. He spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office but was later acquitted and sought asylum in Britain.
Trepashkin's letter also mentioned official targeting of Berezovsky.