STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Days after he went to the hospital, a former Russian spy is dead. Alexander Litvinenko suffered a fatal heart attack yesterday. Though the cause of his death is unknown, there is widespread suspicion that he was poisoned.
NPR's Rob Gifford is covering this story in London. And Rob, what is the evidence of poisoning here?
ROB GIFFORD: Well, all along, ever since Litvinenko was admitted to the hospital last week, they have said they were sure that it was poisoning. In fact, a senior toxicologist earlier this week said he was sure that it was thallium poisoning. Thallium is a heavy metal, a pinch of which in your food can kill you. They've since retreated from that slightly. There were suggestions it was something to do with radiation. And then yesterday, when Mr. Litvinenko's death was actually announced, they said again we just simply don't know exactly what it is, but they're still working on the basis that it was some kind of lethal poison.
INSKEEP: And why would anybody want to poison this man?
GIFFORD: Well, Alexander Litvinenko was very unpopular with the Kremlin. He was a former KGB colonel. He went on to be a member of the FSB, the successor to the KGB in the 1990s. He worked under Vladimir Putin, who was head of the FSB during the 1990s. He appears to have become disillusioned with what they were doing, and in fact he wrote a book about the 1999 bombings in Moscow in which more than 300 people died, accusing the Kremlin of being behind it and saying they used the bombings to blame Chechen separatists to justify their ongoing policy in Chechnya.
So having been on the inside, he then stepped outside because of his disillusionment and applied for asylum in Britain in 2000, and he's been living here ever since. So he was a very fierce critic of the Russian government.
INSKEEP: And I suppose we should mention that although the evidence is not clear in this case, one reason people would suspect poisoning is because enemies of the Kremlin have been killed before. And this man was quoted as saying, in the last days of his life, the bastards got me.
GIFFORD: Well, that's right. There have been other vociferous critics of the Kremlin who have died, most notably the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in October in Moscow, And in fact, Litvinenko was investigating her death when he says that he was poisoned, and he thinks it's partly because of his criticism of killings such as Politkovskaya's that he was targeted. As for targeting people outside Russia, there have not really been any since the Cold War. And if this really was the Kremlin doing this - and I don't know if we'll ever know - then this would be the first one since the end of the Cold War.
INSKEEP: How does all this affect the Russian president then, Vladimir Putin?
GIFFORD: Well, he hasn't commented on it directly, though his spokespeople have strenuously denied it. He's actually in Helsinki today for a summit with the European Union and he may well get asked about this issue at news conferences. Obviously, the accusations are so strong and from so many people, he may have to answer questions about this, and certainly it doesn't do anything for EU relations with Russia that so many people here in London and around Western Europe believe that the Kremlin was behind this.
INSKEEP: Okay, that's NPR's Rob Gifford in London. Thanks very much.
GIFFORD: Thanks, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.