A police officer stands guard near a restaurant in Salisbury, southern England, where a man believed to be former Russian spy Sergei Skripal became ill after exposure to an unidentified substance, on March 5 2018. Picture: REUTERS
A police officer stands guard near a restaurant in Salisbury, southern England, where a man believed to be former Russian spy Sergei Skripal became ill after exposure to an unidentified substance, on March 5 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Salisbury, UK — British police raced on Tuesday to identify a substance that left a former Russian double agent fighting for his life, in what a senior legislator said bore the hallmarks of a Russian attack.

Moscow said it had no information about the “tragic” collapse of the man, identified by the media as Sergei Skripal, in the quiet southern English city of Salisbury on Sunday, but said it would be happy to co-operate if requested by British authorities.

Specialist officers from the counterterrorism squad are helping investigate the incident, which also left a 33-year-old woman — reported to be Skripal’s daughter Yulia — in a critical condition in what is feared to be a poison plot.

Skripal, a 66-year-old former colonel in Russian military intelligence, is also in a critical condition in Salisbury District Hospital.

Police did not confirm their names but did say that two people aged 66 and 33 were being treated for “suspected exposure to an unknown substance”. They also revealed that a member of the emergency services who helped deal with the incident was in hospital.

A “major incident” was declared and the area around the bench where the couple was found slumped remained cordoned off on Tuesday while a restaurant on a street nearby was closed as a “precaution”.

The case revived memories of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and Kremlin critic who was poisoned in 2006 with radioactive polonium in London on orders from Moscow.

The incident caused a deep diplomatic split between London and Moscow, and another death blamed on Russia would ratchet up tension even further.

The chairman of the UK House of Commons foreign affairs committee warned that the evidence was pointing in that direction. “It is too early to say whether it is certain or not, but it certainly bears all the hallmarks of a Russian attack,” said Tom Tugendhat.

Local police say they are keeping “an open mind”, adding that they did not know if a crime had been committed, but said there was no risk to the public.

Skripal was sentenced to 13 years in prison in Russia in 2006 for betraying Russian intelligence agents to Britain’s MI6 secret service. He was pardoned before being flown to Britain as part of a high-profile spy swap between Russia and the US in 2010. A British inquiry ruled in 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” the Litvinenko killing and identified two Russians as the prime suspects.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Tuesday it had no information on the Salisbury incident. “We see that such a tragic situation happened,” he said, adding: “But we don’t have information about what could be the cause, what this person did.”

He said London had not made any requests for assistance in the investigation, but added: “Moscow is always ready for co-operation.”

William Browder, a British hedge fund manager who has campaigned against the Kremlin over the death in custody of his former employee Sergei Magnitsky, said his “first suspicion” was that Moscow was involved.

“This man was considered by the Kremlin to be a traitor to Russia,” he told AFP. “They have a history of doing assassinations in Russia and abroad. And they have a history of using poisons, including in Britain.”

AFP