Shades of the Cold War! For all you John Le Carre fans, a fascinating tale of espionage, international intrigue and murder has been playing out in London. Unfortunately, it's all true: a dissident Soviet spy who sought political asylum in Great Britain has been murdered. And his cause of death has provoked serious cause for alarm: radiation poisoning.
Medical and police reports indicate Alexander Litvinenko, 43, was killed by a massive dose of alpha radiation from Polonium 210. A large quantity of the deadly radioactive element was detected in Litvinenko's urine, just hours prior to his death Thursday night in University College Hospital, London. For weeks doctors had tried to determine the type of poison that made Litvinenko ill, sending him to intensive care.
Press reports said traces of radiation were found at the hotel and sushi bar Litvinenko visited on November 1, the day he fell ill. The Health Protection Agency attempted to calm public anxiety, saying the risk of contamination was low. But the agency admitted that the apparent poisoning was "unprecedented."
The disclosure that radiation was to blame for Litvinenko's death came after his family released his deathbed statement, in which the Kremlin critic and former security agent accused Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed," he said. "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. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people."
Litvinenko's father Walter blamed Russian security services for the death of his "courageous" son.
The ex-spy's statement prompted Putin to speak out for the first time about the situation. He insisted there was no proof that Litvinenko's death was "violent."
Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism unit, led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, is heading an investigation into Litvinenko's poisoning. Further, on Friday senior government ministers and security officials held a meeting of Cobra, the government's emergency planning committee.
Update Nov. 25 - Cahal Milmo's article in London's The Independent discusses the fallout from Litvinenko's death.