Sunday 20 January 2019

Former Russian spy fighting for life after being 'poisoned' in UK

Sergei Skripal speaks to his lawyer from behind bars in a courtroom in Moscow back in 2006. Photo: AP/Misha Japaridze
Sergei Skripal speaks to his lawyer from behind bars in a courtroom in Moscow back in 2006. Photo: AP/Misha Japaridze

Robert Mendick, Hayley Dixon, Victoria Ward and Roland Oliphant

A Russian agent convicted of spying for Britain was fighting for his life last night amid suspicions he was poisoned in a shopping centre in Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Sergei Skripal (66) was in intensive care after being exposed to a mysterious substance as he sat on a bench in the cathedral city in western England.

A 33-year-old woman who was with him is also in a critical condition. Both had collapsed and were unconscious when they were discovered.

The incident bears similarities to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian agent who was poisoned by radioactive polonium in a London hotel.

Mr Skripal, a former Russian intelligence agent, was jailed in Moscow for spying for Britain but had arrived in the UK in 2010 as part of a prisoner exchange.

Anna Chapman, a Russia-born secret agent who had acquired British citizenship and who was detained by US authorities, was sent back to Russia along with nine other agents.

Mr Litvinenko's widow Marina told 'The Daily Telegraph' last night: "It looks similar to what happened to my husband but we need more information. We need to know the substance. Was it radioactive?"

Mr Skripal and his female companion were discovered on Sunday afternoon. A witness said she walked past the pair who appeared to have "taken something quite strong".

Freya Church said: "On the right hand side on the bench there was a couple, an older guy and a younger girl, she was sort of lent in on him. It looked like she had passed out. He was doing some strange hand movements looking up to the sky."

The couple were taken to Salisbury District Hospital where authorities declared a major incident and its A&E unit had to be closed.

Last night police wearing protective suits were examining the area around the bench where the couple had collapsed. One well-placed source said a number of police officers who had initially attended the scene had also been treated for possible contamination, although 'The Daily Telegraph' was unable to verify that.

One report suggested a "specialist chemical response unit" had removed an "unknown substance" which had been wrapped in several protective layers.

The prospect of a state-sponsored assassination of Mr Skripal was immediately raised by opponents of Vladimir Putin.

Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and high-profile critic of the Russian leader, tweeted: "After the UK's pathetic response to Litvinenko's assassination with polonium in London, why wouldn't Putin do it again?"

Mr Skripal is thought to have been living quietly in Salisbury for seven years. He was jailed for 13 years in 2006 after being found guilty of "high treason in the form of espionage" in a Moscow military court.

Russia alleged he had been paid £72,000 (€81,000) by MI6 in exchange for passing it the identities of Russian secret agents operating in Europe. He was branded a traitor and a disgrace.

Igor Sutyagin, a Russian nuclear expert who had been convicted of spying in 2004, was also sent to the UK with Mr Skripal as part of the spy swap.

Dr Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute in London, last night said he only knew Mr Skripal for the duration of their flight from Moscow.

Asked about Russia's possible involvement, he said: "If everything points to these people, then that's a problem for them."

Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, said: "While it is too soon to attribute responsibility, it would be foolhardy if the authorities were not to explore the Russia connection."

In a statement, Craig Holden, temporary assistant chief constable of Wiltshire Police, said: "The two people - a man in his 60s, and a woman in her 30s - were found unconscious on a bench in The Maltings in Salisbury."

© Daily Telegraph, London

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