at UK Telegraph, multiple authors
Friends of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector, told The Sunday Telegraph last night of their horror at seeing him in hospital after he was poisoned.
Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian billionaire who has known Mr Litvinenko for 10 years, accused President Vladimir Putin of being behind the attack.
Mr Berezovsky, who visited his friend in hospital on Friday, said: "I couldn't believe it because he looked 10 years older than the last time I saw him and that was only a couple of weeks ago. He has lost all his hair and is completely bald."
Mr Berezovsky has no doubts that his friend was targeted by agents on behalf of Mr Putin.
"I know people in Britain find it difficult to believe that someone who is a leader of a G8 country and someone who struts across the world stage as a democrat could order something like this to be done," he said. "But people need to understand he is a bandit."
Scotland Yard is investigating how Mr Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian secret service and a fierce critic of Mr Putin, was poisoned. The 50-year-old, who used to work for the Federal Security Bureau (FSB, the former KGB), is feared to be the latest victim of the Russian government.
Mr Litvinenko is believed to have been targeted when he met a female journalist at Itsu, a Japanese restaurant in Piccadilly, London. She claimed to have information on the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, 48, the outspoken journalist who was shot dead at her Moscow apartment last month. Mr Litvinenko is thought to have been poisoned with thallium, a colourless and odourless liquid that is used to kill rats.
The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that he was examined in hospital by Professor John Henry, a British toxicologist who two years ago was one of the first to confirm that Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, had been poisoned during the election campaign. After being poisoned, Mr Yushchenko's face blistered violently.
Mr Litvinenko, who defected six years ago and became a British citizen last month, fell ill soon after meeting his contact on November 1 and has been transferred from one London hospital to another.
His friends believe the woman he met may have been a genuine contact. However, they suspect opponents discovered the venue for their meeting and slipped the poison into his food or drink before or during his meal.
A friend said: "Alexander cannot be certain he was poisoned in the restaurant but that is the most likely scenario." There is no suggestion that Itsu or its staff are involved.
The poisoning of Mr Litvinenko has echoes of the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian defector, who was poisoned by a pellet inserted into his leg from the tip of an umbrella in London in 1978.
A respected source in Moscow said: "The Russian government consider Litvinenko to be an enemy and a traitor. He is a critic of the president and has questioned whether the Chechens were really behind the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 which killed 300 people." The bombings were blamed on Chechen rebels, prompting Mr Putin to order an assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny, which left thousands dead.
Mr Litvinenko came to prominence at a press conference in Moscow in 1998. Flanked by colleagues who concealed their identities with balaclavas, he claimed that the KGB had been ordered to assassinate Mr Berezovsky, who had helped in Mr Putin's rise to power.
In 2002, during his absence, Mr Litvinenko was convicted of abuse of office and given a suspended sentence of three and a half years.
Russians who speak out against Mr Putin's administration – especially journalists – fear for their lives. When Ms Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lift of her apartment block in Moscow last month, she was the 13th journalist to be murdered. She ran a relentless campaign exposing corruption in the army and its brutal reign in Chechnya.
Since her assassination, the Committee to Protect Journalists has disclosed that Russia has become the third most dangerous place in the world to work: only in Iraq and Algeria have more reporters been murdered. What is perhaps more chilling is that not one of the 13 murders of journalists has been solved.
When Mr Putin came to power he declared: "Our press is free and forever will be." The honeymoon did not last. Instead of following a path to democracy, Mr Putin, a former head of the KGB, has reasserted the centralised Kremlin control of the Soviet era.