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British police probing ex-spy death arrive in Moscow

Russian official asserts relations could be harmed

MOSCOW -- Russia's foreign minister warned yesterday that continued suggestions of Kremlin involvement in the death of a former KGB agent could damage relations with Britain, which sent police to Moscow to expand the investigation into the London poisoning.

Lawyers for an imprisoned security officer, Mikhail Trepashkin, said he has key evidence in the case. They appealed to the British officers in Russia to collect testimony from him as soon as possible, saying his life was in danger.

Alexander Litvinenko, 43, died Nov. 23 in London after ingesting the radioactive isotope polonium-210. On his deathbed, he blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the poisoning. The Kremlin has vehemently denied the accusations.

Trepashkin, who is serving a four-year sentence in Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains for revealing state secrets, reportedly said in a letter from prison that he had warned Litvinenko several years ago about a government-sponsored death squad that intended to kill him and other Kremlin opponents.

"Trepashkin said he had information that could shed light on the killing" of Litvinenko, his lawyer, Yelena Liptser, told the Associated Press. "If the authorities don't allow him to do that, that would mean they are trying to hide something."

In letters released by his supporters, Trepashkin said an officer of the Federal Security Service, a KGB successor agency known by the acronym FSB, offered him a chance in 2002 to join a group targeting Litvinenko but he rejected it. Trepashkin quoted the officer as saying that "Litvinenko won't escape Trotsky's ice pick," referring to the 1940 murder of Leon Trotsky by a Soviet agent.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned yesterday that continued suggestions of Russian official involvement in Litvinenko's death could damage diplomatic relations.

In televised comments, Lavrov said he had spoken with British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett "about the necessity to avoid any kind of politicization of this question, this tragedy -- the death of a person is always a tragedy -- and the necessity to avoid speculation on this subject."

Britain's Home Secretary John Reid said his government "got assurances . . . that the Russian government will give us all of the assistance that is necessary."

"The police are on their way to Russia and will go anywhere else . . . in order to investigate the circumstances of the suspicious death," Reid told reporters on the sidelines of an EU justice and interior ministers meeting.

A spokeswoman for the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said several countries had asked for information about the radiation poisoning.

"The IAEA has, in turn, been in touch with the British government for such information and also offered its assistance," said the spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming.

Among those being sought for interviews by the British was Andrei Lugovoi, another former agent who met Litvinenko on Nov. 1 -- the day he fell ill. FBI agents have also been involved in the probe.

A business associate of Lugovoi, Vyacheslav Sokolenko, said yesterday that Lugovoi could not be reached pending his questioning by the British investigators.

Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said he would discuss the case with Putin when the two meet today in Moscow.

Mario Scaramella, an Italian contact of Litvinenko who met with him the day he fell ill, has tested positive for traces of the same radioactive isotope that doctors say killed the Russian agent.

Scaramella has said he showed Litvinenko e-mails suggesting Russian agents' involvement in the October killing of Russian investigative journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya. Scaramella is being monitored by doctors at a London hospital. A statement from the hospital said he shows no symptoms of radiation poisoning.

Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that the document named Valentin Velichko, an FSB veteran who heads an organization called Honor and Dignity.

Velichko declined to comment yesterday, but an organization leader who gave his name only as Viktor Afanasievich said of the report "it's all utter nonsense."

Also yesterday, former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar was released from a Moscow hospital following a mysterious illness his party blamed on poisoning.

Doctors in Ireland, where Gaidar fell ill, concluded he was not afflicted by a radioactive substance, but said his health had suffered sudden "radical changes."

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