British Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — The UK will take "robust" action against whoever poisoned a former Russian spy, the country’s home secretary Amber Rudd has warned.

"The use of a nerve agent on British soil is a brazen and reckless act," Rudd told parliament on Thursday. "This is attempted murder in a most cruel and public way. We will respond in a robust and appropriate manner."

Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, south-west of London, on Sunday. They were "targeted specifically" and government experts have identified the "specific nerve agent used", which will help identify the source, the metropolitan police said late Wednesday.

A police officer who was hospitalised after attending the scene was affected by the same nerve agent, Rudd said. The officer was in a serious condition, but "conscious, talking and engaging".

‘Brazen’

Rudd stopped short of saying who she thought was responsible, although legislators questioning her named Russia. Conservative Edward Leigh described the attack as "a brazen act of war". Prime Minister Theresa May is being briefed regularly on the case, and officials are putting a plan in place to act as soon as the perpetrators are identified, her spokesperson James Slack, told reporters in London.

Earlier, Rudd said she was "confident" those responsible would be found but cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

Skripal was convicted in 2006 of passing the identities of Russian agents in Europe to the UK’s secret intelligence service, MI6. Russian authorities said payments totaling $100,000 were made into a Spanish bank account in return for his work for the UK. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail, but in 2010 was pardoned and sent to Britain, in a swap deal involving agents who had been arrested in the US.

Rudd said security services are working constantly behind the scenes to counter threats to UK and foreign citizens in Britain.

Threats

"You may not hear about it all — but when we do see there is action to be taken, we will take it," Rudd told the BBC. "There is activity the police, the security services take day in, day out that protects us, that keeps us safe that we don’t hear about every day, partly because of their success at doing the job they do so bravely and so well."

Rob Wainwright, the head of the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol, offered a heavy hint about where he thought responsibility for the attack lay in a comment on Twitter. "Of course we should exercise caution before jumping to any conclusions," he wrote. "But, whoever is responsible — and there are not 101 likely offenders — this is an outrageous affront to our security in Europe and our way of life."

The Times of London reported that intelligence officials are treating the poisoning as a state-sponsored assassination attempt, although there are also alternative theories including crime.

Russia has adopted an increasingly aggressive foreign policy in recent years, directed toward both its immediate neighbours and further afield. Britain has accused it of interfering in elections worldwide, and has stationed forces in countries on its border to deter military action.

UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson told parliament on Tuesday that Russia had become a "malign and disruptive force" and that Britain would be likely to increase sanctions if evidence emerged that Russia was behind the attack.

The incident has uncomfortable echoes of the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian ex-spy who was murdered in 2006 after his tea was spiked with radioactive polonium. Johnson also made a connection with that case. In 2016, a judge ruled that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the murder. Russia dismissed the UK inquiry at the time as a "politicised farce".

Bloomberg

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