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Kovtun contaminated with polonium on way through Hamburg

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dpa German Press Agency
Published: Sunday December 10, 2006

Hamburg- Germany has opened an inquiry against Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun for spreading radioactive polonium as he travelled through the city of Hamburg at the end of October, senior prosecutor Martin Koehnke said Sunday. At a news conference in Hamburg, Koehnke said Kovtun, 41, was not yet being accused of the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London three weeks later, and it was possible that Kovtun was also a victim of polonium poisoning.

Kovtun was one of two Russian former agents who met with Litvinenko in London on November 1, the day the dissident fell sick.

The head of the German police inquiry, Thomas Menzel, said Russian authorities had been asked for help.

"We have got no answer," he said. A Scotland Yard detective was to arrive from London Monday to assist the 170 German police assigned to the case.

The suspicion that Kovtun spread a dangerous substance in Hamburg came after polonium-210 was found on a couch where Kovtun slept, on the passenger seat of a BMW car in which he travelled and on an immigration document he signed at a German government office.

Police and scientists said the polonium could have spread to Kovtun's hands if he had handled a container of the poison, but also could also have reached his skin via sweat and saliva if he had ingested the poison.

Gerald Kirchner of the German Federal Bureau for Radiation Protection BfS said, "If it did come out of a container, that was very carelessly done." He added that it was impossible to know how much had been on Kovtun's hands.

The prosecutor said the suspicion that Kovtun knowingly spread the poison reflected an assessment of the facts overall, but it remained possible that he was a victim unaware he had been fed polonium.

The couch was in the Hamburg apartment of Kovtun's wife, Marina W, who confirmed he had been there on October 30. She, her boyfriend and children have been checked for signs of poison, but they have not been contaminated, police said.

Menzel said the smudges were "definitely" polonium-210, a radioactive isotope of the metal polonium that remains toxic for about a year after it has been made. Scientists said the traces posed no danger whatever to people in Hamburg because they were so slight.

The inquiry has put the spotlight on Germany's biggest seaport, which was also the jump-off point in 2001 for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Three of the Islamist suicide pilots were Arab students in the city.

Police chief Werner Jantosch denied any significance in this, saying it was simply a feature of being a world metropolis.

"Hamburg is a trade crossover between east and west," he said. "Don't believe it's just cars, vodka and natural gas. All sorts of people want to take advantage of the anonymity of a huge city."

The city police chief said it was unlikely that the plot to kill Litvinenko was planned in Hamburg.

Menzel said city police made the discovery themselves that Kovtun was registered as a resident of Hamburg and alerted Scotland Yard last week. They began a search of Kovtun's apartment and that of his ex-wife in the same building on Friday night.

Polonium traces were also found at a suburban mansion where her mother lives. Although Kovtun renewed his German residency permit during his visit in October, he had not dwelt in the apartment registered in his name for several years.

The BfS radiation agency in the city of Salzgitter said Sunday no traces were found on the Germanwings airliner, in which Kovtun flew from Hamburg to London to meet with Litvinenko. Police said they advised Russia to check out the seats on an Aeroflot airliner on which Kovtun flew to Hamburg on October 28.

Russian news reports say Kovtun is seriously ill in a Moscow hospital with polonium poisoning.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency