Ex-Russian spy buried in London as police press inquiry in Moscow

Friday, December 8, 2006
The coffin of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was carried during his funeral at Highgate Cemetery in north London Thursday. (Cathal McNaughton ~ Associated Press)

LONDON -- Exiled Kremlin critics -- including a billionaire and a Chechen rebel leader -- mourned Thursday as a former Russian spy poisoned by radiation was buried in a sealed coffin on a wind-swept hillside in London.

British and Russian investigators seeking Alexander Litvinenko's killer questioned a Russian businessman in Moscow -- just before he fell into a coma, the Interfax news agency reported. The businessman, Dmitry Kovtun, is believed to have met with the former KGB agent the day he fell ill.

Hotel employees tested

Seven employees at the London hotel where the meeting took place have tested positive for low levels of polonium-210, the rare radioactive substance found in Litvinenko's body, Britain's Health Protection Agency said Thursday. The agency said the seven were working at the Millennium Hotel's bar on Nov. 1, the day Litvinenko became sick. He died Nov. 23.

Around 50 of Litvinenko's family and friends gathered to pay tribute to him in an isolated section of historic Highgate Cemetery, one of London's most exclusive burial grounds and the final resting place of Karl Marx and George Eliot.

As cold rain splashed down on nearby Victorian-era tombs and mausoleums, the large dark oak coffin was lowered into a grave.

The ex-agent's casket was sealed throughout the burial ceremony, on the advice of Health Protection Agency.

Officials said the contaminated body posed no risks if buried, but warned the family would have "to wait 22 years for the radioactive material to decay" if they wanted to cremate the remains, friend Alex Goldfarb said.

At the cemetery, Lord John Rea, director of the Save Chechnya campaign, held up a picture of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic and friend of Litvinenko who was gunned down in Moscow in October. Litvinenko was investigating her killing when he was poisoned.

Self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev consoled the former agent's wife, Marina, and 12-year-old son, Anatoly.

More controversy

Even the funeral was tinged with controversy.

Litvinenko reportedly converted to Islam before he died, but his family asked for a non-denominational ceremony. Despite this, an imam appeared uninvited and performed rites at the burial, Goldfarb said.

"Unfortunately some people appeared and against the explicit wishes of the widow performed Muslim rites over the funeral ... let God be their judge," Goldfarb said.

The burial followed a service at Regent's Park Mosque, where traditional Islamic funeral prayers were said. Litvinenko's father Walter and Zakayev also mourned at the mosque.

Some friends disputed the conversion claim -- saying Litvinenko had merely expressed empathy with Chechen Muslims. But Vladimir Bukovsky, the former spy's friend and a fellow critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Litvinenko had asked his body eventually be moved to Chechnya.

"On his deathbed he asked to be buried when the war is over in Chechen soil," Bukovsky said. "He was a fierce defender of Chechnya and critic of the Kremlin."

In Moscow, prosecutors said Thursday they had also opened a criminal case over Litvinenko's death and the attempted killing of Kovtun -- a move that would allow suspects to be prosecuted in Russia.

Scotland Yard officers declined to speculate about how Russia's decision would effect their investigation. Russian officials said previously they would not extradite any suspects to London over Litvinenko's death.

A scheduled interview with ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi was postponed in Moscow on Thursday for "technical reasons," his lawyer told the Associated Press.

AP writers Raphael Satter, Maria Hegstad and Katie Fretland contributed to this story.

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