LONDON - The richest man in the former Soviet state of Georgia was found dead in his mansion near London less than two months after claiming he was the target of an assassination plot for helping lead a protest movement against his homeland's government.
British police said yesterday that a major crimes unit was investigating the death late Tuesday of 52-year-old billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, which they were treating as suspicious pending an autopsy.
Patarkatsishvili built his fortune in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union through a partnership with Boris Berezovsky - another self-exile who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's most vocal foes.
His death drew comparisons to the 2006 radiation poisoning in London of ex-Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko. Moscow's refusal to hand over the primary suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, has strained relations between Britain and Russia.
Police found no trace of radiation at the Georgian's mansion, Britain's Press Association reported, citing police sources.
"Even if it is a heart attack, the recent situation in England with the deteriorating relations with Russia has led people to be suspicious even when there aren't any grounds to be suspicious," Natasha Chouvaeva, editor of the Russian-language newspaper London Courier, said of Patarkatsishvili's death.
In a strange twist, Lugovoi provided security for Patarkatsishvili and his businesses for 13 years. The Georgian businessman had called Lugovoi a "close friend" and expressed doubt that he was involved in Litvinenko's death.
Family members and other unidentified people were with Patarkatsishvili when he collapsed and died around 11 p.m. Tuesday in his home in Leatherhead, 20 miles south of London, police said.
Police said they were tracing his movements over the previous 48 hours. Investigators hoped to conduct toxicology tests on the body yesterday.
Patarkatsishvili told the AP on Dec. 26 that he had obtained a tape recording of an official in his homeland's Interior Ministry asking a Chechen warlord to murder the tycoon in London. "I believe they want to kill me," he said.
It was not possible to verify his claim. He said the tape had been given to police.
Yesterday, Scotland Yard said it wouldn't discuss the alleged threat.