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Media wars over Litvinenko as probe drags

Reuters
Thursday, March 22, 2007

A friend of poisoned former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko accused Moscow on Thursday of exploiting the dead man's ex-wife in a KGB-style campaign to blacken his name.

Alexander Goldfarb was responding to an interview in which Litvinenko's first wife, Natalia, described how he left her and their two young children, taking all the family's savings and even raiding her purse"down to the last kopeck".

The damaging account "clearly resembles a classic disinformation campaign of the old KGB", Goldfarb said in a telephone interview.

"They explore her grudges against him, against his second wife...They're manipulating her in a very sophisticated way."

His comments were the latest shot in a media battle being waged between supporters and detractors of Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who died in London four months ago after being poisoned by radioactive polonium.

Both sides appear to have stepped up their campaigns in the past two weeks, filling a vacuum created by the absence of new information on the case from British investigators.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), considering whether to bring charges on the basis of a police report it received on January 31, said it asked Scotland Yard several weeks ago to provide some "further information".

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said police were liaising with both the CPS and Russian authorities.

KREMLIN CRITIC

Litvinenko, who in exile had become a fierce Kremlin critic, issued a deathbed statement in which he accused President Vladimir Putin of responsibility for his murder -- a claim Moscow has dismissed as ridiculous but which has threatened to cast a Cold War shadow over relations with Britain.

The dead man's friend and patron, dissident businessman Boris Berezovsky, said this week: "I don't think that Putin gave the order to kill him by poison polonium, but I'm sure that Putin is behind it and (there is) no chance without Putin to obtain polonium and organise this plot."

While Berezovsky has stayed largely silent over the case, his influence in the PR battle has been felt. It was his favoured communications agency, Bell Pottinger, that distributed the photograph of a dying Litvinenko, gaunt and hooked up to medical tubes, that has been endlessly reproduced in the media.

Meanwhile one of two Russian businessmen widely portrayed in the British media as prime suspects in the case told the New York Times last week Litvinenko had exposed him to polonium, not the other way round.

LOADED PISTOL

Amid the claims and counter-claims, the disclosures by Litvinenko's ex-wife Natalia and their children Sasha and Sonia, in an interview with Izvestia newspaper, stood out for their highly personal flavour.

"He was absent minded. He could leave a loaded pistol on top of the piano...Once little Sasha found it. We were sitting in the room and in comes Sasha with the pistol: 'Daddy, hands up!'" Natalia recalled. "Things like that used to happen regularly."

Litvinenko was portrayed as consumed by a "thirst for money and power", ending up as a sad, lonely figure in his London exile and venting his obsessive hostility towards Putin in long telephone conversations with Sasha, now 22.

Sonia, who visited him in London a year before his death, said he had money problems and was constantly running around at Berezovsky's beck and call.

Goldfarb, who heads a New York-based civil liberties foundation set up by Berezovsky, said the interview reminded him of the KGB's campaign in the 1970s to attack dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn through his embittered ex-wife.

"You can see the imprint of the old KGB not only in the plot to poison Litvinenko but also in the cover-up and disinformation campaign behind it," he said.

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