Wednesday, November 29, 2006

LONDON — British Airways appealed yesterday to tens of thousands of passengers who flew in two of its Boeing 767 jetliners to or from Moscow to come forward after traces of radioactivity were found aboard the planes. Investigators widened the search for clues into the poisoning death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

The airline said the “risk to public health is low,” but it is nevertheless trying to reach passengers who flew on the jets. The British Health Protection Agency said the substance is a hazard only if it is inhaled or swallowed or enters the body through a wound.

Two planes at London’s Heathrow Airport tested positive for traces of radiation and a third plane has been taken out of service in Moscow to be inspected, British Airways said.

Natalia Remnyova, administrator at Domodedovo Airport, the Moscow airport used by British Airways, said she knew nothing of a plane grounded there. Russian Transport Ministry and other government officials could not be reached for comment.

The airline said it was contacted by the British government Tuesday night and told to ground the planes to allow investigators to test them for radiation.

High doses of polonium-210 — a rare radioactive element usually manufactured in specialized nuclear facilities — were found in Mr. Litvinenko’s urine, and traces of radiation have been found at sites in London connected with the inquiry into his death.

All three planes had been on the London-Moscow route, British Airways said. Over the past three weeks the planes had traveled as well to Athens, Cyprus, Madrid, Vienna, Istanbul, Stockholm, Barcelona, Spain, and Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. None flew to the United States.

About 30,000 passengers traveled on 220 flights on those planes between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3, said Kate Gay, a British Airways spokeswoman.

“The airline is in the process of making contact with customers who have traveled on flights operated by these aircraft, which operate within Europe. British Airways understands that from advice it has been given that the risk to public health is low.”

The airline lists the flights affected on its Web site (, and urged passengers on these flights to call a special help line set up by the British Health Ministry.

Mr. Litvinenko, a former colonel with Russia’s Federal Security Service — the successor agency to the KGB — had been a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin before his death from radiation poisoning last Thursday. From his deathbed, he blamed Mr. Putin for his poisoning. Mr. Putin has strongly denied the charge.

In a separate development, former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar appeared to be recovering in a Moscow hospital yesterday from a mystery illness, triggering speculation of another poisoning linked to the death of Mr. Litvinenko.

Mr. Gaidar was in satisfactory condition, but “there was a serious threat to his life” after he fell ill Friday in Ireland, where he had been attending a conference, Mr. Gaidar’s daughter Maria Gaidar told television interviewers.

Doctors at one point feared that Mr. Gaidar, 50, an influential figure in Russia’s opposition, appeared to be dying. He collapsed during a visit to Ireland to promote his new book, “Death of the Empire.”

“He lost consciousness for three hours and was taken to intensive care for a long time where doctors were fearful for his life,” Miss Gaidar, an opposition activist, told Reuters news agency.

“He is in Moscow and doctors are trying to come up with a diagnosis but they can’t find one. His condition is satisfactory and he is speaking, but he looks very bad — he looks pale and thin.”

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