Ex-double agent struck down in UK

Ambulances and a police car outside the emergency room at Salisbury District Hospital
Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville

Poisoning suspected as former spy and daughter fight for life in hospital

British police raced yesterday to identify the substance suspected of striking down a former Russian double agent convicted of treason in Moscow for betraying dozens of spies to British intelligence.

Mark Rowley, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, said investigators needed to be alive to the fact of state threats after Sergei Skripal, once a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, was taken ill.

The 66-year-old former spy and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found on Sunday unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre in the English city of Salisbury after exposure to what police said was an unknown substance.

Both were still critically ill in intensive care, nearly 48 hours after emergency services were first called.

“They are currently being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance,” Wiltshire Police .

“Both remain in a critical condition in intensive care.”

While the British authorities said there was no known risk to the public, police sealed off the area where the former spy was found, a pizza restaurant called Zizzi and the Bishop’s Mill pub in the centre of Salisbury.

Some investigators at one point wore yellow chemical suits, though most police at the scene did not.

Skripal, who passed the identity of dozens of spies to the MI6 foreign intelligence agency, was given refuge in Britain after he was exchanged in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the West as part of a Cold War-style spy swap at the Vienna airport.

“We have to remember, Russian exiles aren’t immortal, they do all die and there can be a tendency to conspiracy theories,” Rowley told BBC radio.

“But likewise we have to be alive to the fact of state threats,” he said, pointing to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

A British inquiry said President Vladimir Putin probably approved the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the killing of Litvinenko.

Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years before he was poisoned, died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London’s Millennium Hotel.

It took some time for British doctors to discern the cause of Litvinenko’s illness.

Should there be any Russian involvement in the Skripal incident, it would have grave consequences for relations with Moscow, according to Richard Walton, the former head of London’s Counter Terrorism Command who was involved in the Litvinenko investigation.

“The UK cannot and will not tolerate state-sponsored terrorism of any kind,” Walton said.

British police did not release the names of those who were being treated but two sources said the critically ill man was Skripal.

The BBC, which first reported Skripal’s name, said his daughter Yulia was the woman found beside him. The Kremlin said it was ready to cooperate if Britain asked for help investigating the incident with Skripal.

Calling it a tragic situation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin did not have information about the incident.

Asked to respond to British media speculation that Russia had poisoned Skripal, Peskov said: “It didn’t take them long.”

Russia’s foreign spy service, known as the SVR, said it had no comment to make.

Russia’s foreign ministry, and the Russian counter-intelligence service, the FSB, did not respond to questions about the case.

Skripal was arrested in 2004 by Russia’s FSB on suspicion of betraying dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 after a secret trial.

But he was pardoned in 2010 by then president Dmitry Medvedev as part of a swap deal.

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