London (CNSNews.com) - As many as five Moscow-London planes are being monitored by U.K. officials after traces of radiation turned up on at least two British Airways aircraft.
U.K. Home Secretary John Reid told Parliament on Thursday that the search for polonium-210 contamination in London also has spread. "To date, around 24 venues have or are being monitored, and experts have confirmed traces of contamination at around 12 of these venues," John Reid said.
British Airways is trying to contact 33,000 passengers who may have come into contact with the low-grade radiation, but the company said the risk to the public is low. An estimated 3,000 staff also will need to be checked, said the company. The two contaminated planes were flying the London-Moscow route. Another three planes are said to be undergoing tests.
Scotland Yard has refused to specify whether the traces found were polonium-210, the radioactive element that poisoned Litvinenko -- finally killing him on Nov 23. Nor is it known if the traces found so far stem from contact with the original toxin, or from people who came into contact with Litvinenko.
The latest development is the first tangible sign that Moscow may be involved in the case. Litvinenko issued a written deathbed accusation, blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin, but this was strongly denied by the Kremlin. Litvinenko, a former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service, was a vocal critic of Putin before his death.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the press that he had not yet spoken to Russian President Putin over the matter, but would "do so at any time that is appropriate."
"There is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way of (the) investigation going wherever it needs to go," Blair told a news conference in Copenhagen. "It obviously is a very serious matter and we are determined to find out what happened and who is responsible."
The alert involves 221 flights made by three short-haul 767s in Europe between 25 October and 29 November, almost a quarter of which were between Moscow and London. The earliest flight involved traveled between Moscow and Heathrow several days before the alleged poisoning of Litvinenko.
An inquest into the death opened Thursday at St. Pancras Coroner's Court. Andrew Reid, presiding, said pathologists would participate in an autopsy Friday. Litvinenko was diagnosed as suffering from leukemia on the day he died a week ago, Reid said.
"It now appears that Mr Litvinenko was exposed to a radioactive substance known as polonium-210," Reid said.
"There is a possibility someone may be charged with homicide in Mr Litvinenko's case. We are still awaiting an autopsy."
Of the 4,000 staff at the hospitals that treated Litvinenko, 160 were assessed for possible exposure, while a group of 50 staff have been asked to undergo further tests.
The U.K. Health Protection Agency said eight people had been referred to a specialist clinic as a precautionary measure because they had symptoms that may indicate exposure to radiation.
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