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How many more were poisoned?

By STEPHEN WRIGHT, TAHIRA YAQOOB and REBECCA CAMBER Last updated at 23:05pm on 24th November 2006

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As the deadliest poison known to man was revealed to have killed Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko, the question last night was: How many more lives could it claim?

The 43-year-old former KGB officer was the victim of polonium 210, a radioactive element used as a trigger in nuclear weapons.

See also:Gallery: The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko
The grieving father's warning
The ex-spy's final defiant message

It is so powerful that a lethal dose can be passed on through the body in sweat or saliva.

So his widow Marina, 44, and ten-year-old son Anatole could have been contaminated just by kissing him as he fought for life in hospital. They are said to be at greatest risk.

But up to 100 other contacts will be tested among hospital staff, family members and restaurant workers who came into contact with him.

Chillingly, traces of polonium 210 have been detected at Itsu, the London sushi bar where Mr Litvinenko ate with a contact on November 1, at the four-star Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, where he met another associate that day, and at the family home in North London.

A large quantity of radiation from polonium 210 was detected in Mr Litvinenko’s urine, apparently a few hours before his death. But last night a post-mortem had yet to be carried out because of fears that the body presented too much of a danger.

Detectives and scientists expressed open astonishment that such an elaborate and evil Cold War-style hit could happen Britain, describing the murder as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘mind-boggling’.

It threatened to cause a serious diplomatic rift between Britain and Russia, at a time when relations are at their worst since the end of the Cold War.

Security sources said MI5 believes the Russian intelligence services assassinated Mr Litvinenko. Britain made a formal request to Moscow for help in the murder investigation. But Mr Putin left diplomats open-mouthed with claims that the former spy did not die ‘a violent death’.

On a day of extraordinary developments in the murder investigation: • Mr Litvinenko condemned President Putin from beyond the grave as ‘barbaric and ruthless’ in a statement dictated before his death. • His grieving father said he had been killed by a ‘little tiny nuclear bomb’ and warned that the Russian regime was a ‘mortal danger’ to the rest of the world. • The Government’s Cobra special emergencies committee met every few hours to discuss the crisis. • The Foreign Office ordered the Russian Ambassador to pass on a demand for information. Alexander ‘Sasha’ Litvinenko died in intensive care at London’s University College Hospital on Thursday night after suffering heart failure.

At a dramatic press conference in London the Health Protection Agency (HPA) revealed that he had been killed by a ‘large dose’ of radioactive polonium 210, and not thallium as previously thought.

Only a speck of it would have been enough to prove fatal once it got into his system, probably by being slipped into his drink or on to food.

Whoever did this must have been expert in the dosage because giving him too much would have caused almost instant death while it took weeks for him to become gravely ill, giving the killer ample chance to escape.

Although there is no cure for polonium poisoning – with Mr Litvinenko thought to be the first human victim – experts stressed that the risk to others was low because the substance must be ingested to become harmful.

HPA chief executive Pat Troop said: ‘The people who are likely to be at risk are those who have come into contact with his bodily fluids.

There would be a potential radiological hazard to people who could have ingested or breathed in the contaminated body fluids but this hazard is likely to be restricted to those who had very close contact with Mr Litvinenko.

‘Normal hygiene and cleanliness practice in hospitals should have reduced the likelihood of any significant intake by NHS staff and others and therefore any radiation hazard.

Describing the case as ‘unprecedented in the UK’, Mrs Troop added: ‘As far as the sushi restaurant is concerned we have found some radiation there. It was in a fairly limited area around the table where he was sitting.

‘The key people are the ones who had close contact with him.’

Dr Michael Clark, also of the HPA, said: ‘There is no antidote for polonium 210. The number affected could be approaching 100.’

In a statement composed two days before he died, Mr Litvinenko blamed President Putin for his illness. He said: ‘You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.

‘You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.’

The dead man’s father Walter Litvinenko broke down outside University College Hospital as he said ‘a terrible thing’ had happened to his son.

‘My son died yesterday and he was killed by a little tiny nuclear bomb,’ he added. ‘It was so small that you could not see it. But the people who killed him have big nuclear bombs and missiles and those people should not be trusted.’

The extraordinary nature of Mr Litvinenko’s murder increased speculation that he had been killed by his former KGB employers as a warning to other ex-spies who might want to criticise the Russian regime.

Mr Litvinenko had openly criticised President Putin and had been investigating the assassination of a Russian journalist who had, in turn, spoken out against Russia’s policies in Chechnya. Downing Street was at pains to avoid fingering Russia as the culprit, amid fears of a potentially explosive diplomatic confrontation.

But the Foreign Office said officials had discussed the issue with the Russian Ambassador, Yuri Fedotov, at a meeting yesterday afternoon.

‘The ambassador was asked to convey to the authorities in Moscow a request to provide any information they might have which would assist the police with their inquiries.’

In Moscow, however, President Putin said: ‘As far as I understand from the medical statement, it does not say this was the result of violence, this was not a violent death.’

British security sources revealed that MI5 has identified as the most likely culprit the FSB – the Russian Federal Security Service which succeeded the KGB.

But they ruled out suggestions that Russian assassins remain at large in London, armed with lethal radioactive material.

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