A former Russian security agent said to have been poisoned in London continued his fight for life in hospital today.
Alexander Litvinenko may have only a 50% chance of surviving the next four weeks, according to friends.
Meanwhile an Italian professor who met him at a Japanese restaurant in London shortly before he fell ill has gone into hiding after being interviewed by British intelligence officials in Rome.
Mr Litvinenko, a former colonel in the FSB – successor to the KGB – was reportedly taken ill on November 1 while investigating the murder of dissident Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The 44-year-old is thought to have been poisoned following a secret meeting with the academic, Mario Scaramella, at a sushi bar in Piccadilly.
Mr Litvinenko had reportedly received documents which claimed to name her killers.
He is said to have been poisoned with thallium, a highly-toxic, colourless and odourless chemical once used in rat and ant killer.
Alex Goldfarb, who brought him to Britain six years ago and has been visiting him in hospital, said he had been warned that his friend’s chances of survival were only 50/50.
But he sounded a more hopeful note leaving University College Hospital last night, saying: “Alexander is a very, very strong man and we all hope that he will get through this.”
He managed to speak to him for only a few minutes yesterday because Mr Litvinenko was talking to police for a third day.
Mr Goldfarb said today that he believed Mr Litvinenko had been targeted by the Russian regime.
“Of course we do not have any direct evidence other than he met some people during that day,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“He actually had a couple of meetings where he had drinks and this poison could be sprinkled there.
Challenged as to Moscow’s involvement in the apparent attempted killing, Mr Goldfarb went on: “What else do we need? The suspected killers have a record of similar murders. The only difference is it’s here and not there.
“It’s very difficult to imagine the President’s ordered the killing, it’s true, and nobody’s saying that Putin personally ordered it, though it’s very likely.”
Mr Goldfarb said Mr Litvinenko had been treated first at Barnet Hospital in north London, but was moved to UCH when his condition worsened.
“He has potential for heart failure, and his immune system is knocked out, making him very susceptible to infection.”
The allegations that Mr Litvinenko was the victim of an attack by the Russian regime evoke echoes of Cold War incidents such as the assassination of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident murdered in London with a poison-tipped umbrella in 1978.
A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “We can confirm that officers from the Specialist Crime Directorate are investigating a suspicious poisoning. There are no arrests and inquiries continue.
“His condition is serious but stable.”
A close friend of Mr Scaramella revealed what he had done after realising he was the last person to see Mr Litvinenko before he fell ill.
The Italian political source, who did not wish to be named, said: “Mario is very scared at the moment. He is worried that the Russians and the Chechens are after him. He has obviously been made some sort of scapegoat.
“Mario is very well connected and has a lot of sources within the intelligence agencies but he did not have any involvement in the attempt on Litvinenko’s life.
“I know that as soon as he heard, Mario went to the British Embassy in Rome and asked to speak to intelligence officers there. He told them everything he knew and he left. This was around a week ago.
“Mario was very good at finding and gathering information in Russia and has very good connections there.
“The last time I spoke to him he felt very worried and threatened. He was very concerned because he feels he has been set up.
“Mario was the last man to see Litvinenko before the attempt on his life so there is going to be some suggestion that he was involved but he is adamant he had nothing to do with it.”
A British Embassy spokesman in Rome would only say: “As the police are investigating this matter it would not be appropriate to make any comment.”
Mr Scaramella is an environmental professor who has lectured in the United States and his home town of Naples in southern Italy.
He was also a consultant on the Italian government’s Mitrokhin Commission which investigated the KGB’s activities in Italy.
The commission also looked at ties between the KGB and the Red Brigade terrorists and he is also an investigating magistrate who looked at links between the Russian and Italian Mafia.
News reports in Italy have also suggested that he was a member of SISMI, the Italian secret services as well as also working for the CIA and Colombian intelligence.
Two years ago he was also the victim of an attempted assassination when he was shot at several times by a gunman from the Camorra, the Naples Mafia, while supervising the demolition of an illegal building constructed by a suspected godfather.
The Japanese restaurant itsu, where the pair met, has an unremarkable facade in between a Vodafone store and a shop selling ipods and accessories, a few hundred yards from the Ritz Hotel in the direction of Piccadilly Circus.