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Radioactivity on British Planes Tied to Spy’s Death

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Published: November 29, 2006

LONDON, Nov. 29 — In yet another new and menacing twist in the suspected radiation poisoning of a former Russian K.G.B. agent in London, British Airways said today that “very low traces” of radioactivity had been found on two of its planes used on routes between London, Moscow and elsewhere.

The airline said at least one of the two Boeing 767s flew between London and Moscow days before the former agent, Alexander Litvinenko, complained of feeling unwell. The airline said it had been asked to check the planes for radiation because the police suspected that passengers included people linked to the Litvinenko investigation.

The airline said the two planes, and third that was being checked, had been used on more than 200 flights between London and destinations including Moscow, Duesseldorf, Barcelona, Athens, Larnaca, Frankfurt, Madrid, Istanbul and Stockholm. The flights took place between October 25 and November 29, according to the airline.

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, said in a television interview that the three airplanes had made 221 flights carrying 33,000 people. Those people should consult health authorities if they are concerned, he said. Some 3,000 British Airways employees will also be checked for radiation, Mr. Walsh said. The airline posted a list of the affected flights on its Web site.

With the inclusion of passengers and staff, the extent of the potential exposure to radiation was far greater than had previously been known. It was not clear how the traces of radioactivity got onto the British Airways planes.

“The advice that we have is that the risk to public health is actually very, very low. But I think it’s only right that we identify the flights that have been involved and make the information available to the customers,” Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Litvinenko, a harsh critic of the Kremlin, died in a London hospital late last Thursday and a radioactive isotope, Polonium 210, was found in his urine. An autopsy is to be carried out on Friday. The British Airways statement did not allude specifically to Polonium 210.

According to Mr. Litvinenko’s supporters, he began to feel ill on November 1, the day he met an Italian contact in a sushi bar and two Russian men — including a former K.G.B. colleague — in a five-star hotel. Traces of radiation have been found in those and other places visited by Mr. Litvinenko on that day, according to the police.

According to the airline, eight of the Moscow trips flown by the three planes being examined took place before November 1.

It was the first time that a physical link has been suggested with Moscow — where Mr. Litvinenko accused the authorities of responsibility for his poisoning — and the first time that traces of radioactivity pre-dating November 1 have been found. That could suggest that Mr Litvinenko had ingested or breathed in radioactive material before that day.

An official on duty at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, Andrei D. Kositsyn, said in a telephone interview that a British Airways flight due to leave Moscow around 5 p.m. today was cancelled and the aircraft remained at the airport. He said the flight was cancelled due to “technical reasons” but he added that the airline had not informed airport officials of the exact reason for grounding the airplane.

He said he was not aware of any concern about radioactivity, which he said would have resulted in special precautions to quarantine the aircraft.

Another official, who spoke in return for anonymity because of airport restrictions on media contacts, identified the plane as one that flew from Moscow to London on Oct. 31 and other dates.

Mr. Walsh, the British Airways chief executive, said the airplane grounded in Moscow would be tested there.

“Purely on a precautionary basis, scientific teams have been testing a number of locations identified as part of the police investigation over the last few days,” a British Airways spokesman said, speaking in return for customary anonymity under company policy.

Britain’s Health Protection Agency said today that 49 people working at two hospitals where Mr. Litvinenko was treated had been asked as precaution to provide urine samples to establish whether they had been contaminated.

Alan Cowell reported from London, and Steven Lee Myers from Moscow.

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