LONDON and ROME - Gaunt and sallow, with wires snaking from his chest to banks of medical monitors, Alexander Litvinenko tussles with the poison in his body.
The full effects of the toxic metal thallium on the former KGB lieutenant-colonel turned strident critic of President Vladimir Putin's Government were made public yesterday in pictures at his bedside in a London hospital. He has lost his hair. His skin has been yellowed by kidney damage and 20 days of vomiting are evident in his drawn features and thinned lips.
Scotland Yard said that its anti-terrorist branch was in charge of the investigation into the poisoning, indicating that detectives were treating the incident as an attempted assassination.
Police are liaising with MI5 and MI6 in their investigation, which is being controlled by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the anti-terrorist branch.
The Yard said it was treating the attack on Litvinenko as a "suspected deliberate poisoning". A spokesman said: "We are making a number of extensive enquiries to determine the cause of his condition, including toxicology tests, interviewing possible witnesses ... and examining CCTV footage."
The Russian agent fell ill on November 1 after meeting an Italian academic and KGB expert, Mario Scaramella, at a central London sushi restaurant in Piccadilly.
Detectives were focusing on an earlier encounter at a London hotel between Litvinenko and two Russians, one a former KGB officer.
The former KGB officer and MI6 double agent Oleg Gordievsky, a friend of Litvinenko, said one of the men was a former KGB agent who is a member of the circle surrounding oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who has close links with Litvinenko.
Gordievsky said: "They took tea. The British police have been made aware of this. It is all very suspicious."
Up to five armed police officers were standing guard yesterday outside the intensive care ward at University College Hospital in central London. Litvinenko, who has been given a 50-50 chance of survival, was moved to the ward yesterday after doctors warned he could deteriorate suddenly.
The Kremlin broke its silence yesterday, dismissing claims that Russia's Federal Security Bureau (FSB, the KGB's successor) was responsible. Dmitry Peskov, a senior Kremlin spokesman, said: "We cannot comment on what happened to Litvinenko, and we don't consider it possible to comment on the statements accusing the Kremlin because it is nothing but sheer nonsense."
Further details also emerged of why Scaramella met Litvinenko at short notice. Two days earlier Scaramella received two emails threatening his life and that of Senator Paolo Guzzanti, who appointed Scaramella to the Mitrokhin commission investigating KGB activities during the Cold War.
The emails accused both men of falsifying the activities of the KGB and warned of the "necessity to use force" against them. The messages - seen by the Independent - name a Russian agent who is said to be planning to attack Scaramella and say the same man was "presumably involved" in Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's recent murder. It has been presumed that Litvinenko met his Italian contact to discuss the Politkovskaya case. But it is now thought the meeting was held so Scaramella could ask his opinion of the credibility of the threat.