Russia poison victims fly home

A US Embassy spokesman identified the women as Marina Kovalevsky and her daughter, Yana.


Russian authorities were investigating when and how the women were exposed to the poison, a spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of embassy rules.

Moscow police declined to comment, but the Ekho Moskvy radio reported police were investigating cafes and restaurants in the area of the hotel where the women had been staying.

The hospital where they have been treated since falling ill on February 24 said this morning that they were in moderately serious condition and Moscow's top public health doctor, Nikolai Filatov, was quoted by the RIA-Novosti news agency as saying that thallium poisoning had been confirmed.

Marina, 49, and Yana, 26, are Soviet-born and emigrated to the United States in 1989. They have visited Russia repeatedly since then, relatives and colleagues said.

In West Hollywood, California, where Marina Kovalevsky opened an internal medicine practice some six or seven years ago, there is a large Russian-speaking immigrant community.

Relatives said she left for Moscow on February 14 to attend a friend's party.

A colleague, Dr Arkady Stern, told reporters that Marina Kovalevsky left Los Angeles "in a good state of health, in good spirits".

Dr Stern said that after it was suspected that she was poisoned, she was given dialysis and took an antidote called "Prussian Blue" and her condition began to improve.

He said that since both had the same symptoms, it led to the suspicion that they were poisoned but he believed it was "some sort of tragic mistake".

There was no indication of whether the women had business or political interests in Russia that could have made them a target for poisoning.

How the two may have ingested the poison – a colourless, tasteless substance that can be fatal in doses of as little as one gram – was not clear.

Thallium is a reputed poison of choice for assassins. It was initially suspected to be the toxin used in last year's fatal poisoning in London of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko, but it was later determined he had ingested the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210.

For poisoning purposes, thallium would be in a powdery or crystallised state. The poison works by knocking out the body's supply of potassium, essential for healthy cells, and attacking the nervous system, the stomach and kidneys.

Its effects are not immediately noticeable and frequently take weeks to kick in; symptoms include hair loss and a burning sensation in extremities.

In the past, thallium has been used in rat poison and it continues to be used industrially to manufacture products including glass lenses, semiconductors, dyes and pigments.

Thallium was used by Saddam Hussein, who poisoned several of his Iraqi opponents. It also reportedly was considered by the CIA for use against Fidel Castro, possibly by putting thallium powder in his shoes to prompt loss of his trademark beard.

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