- Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia critically ill in intensive care
- Boris Johnson says ‘no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go unpunished’
- Former associate of Litvinenko: ‘This has all the hallmarks of a Putin assassination’
- Ex counter-terrorism head: ‘UK Russia bi-lateral relations are at breaking point’
- One member of emergency services in hospital following incident
- Counter Terrorism Policing take over investigation
- Bishop’s Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant ‘secured’ as part of investigation
- Russian Embassy accuses UK Government of anti-Russian campaign
- UK Government to hold emergency Cobra meeting
The suspected poisoning of a Russian MI6 spy and his daughter has sparked a diplomatic row between Moscow and London after Britain warned of a “robust” response if the Kremlin was behind the mysterious illness.
Sergei Skripal, 66, is in intensive care along with his daughter Yulia, 33, after the pair were found unconscious outside the Maltings shopping centre on Sunday, after exposure to an unknown substance.
Samples from the scene are being tested at Porton Down, Britain’s military research laboratory, and results have yet to be publicly revealed. The Sun on Tuesday night reported thallium - the “poisoner’s poison” - was found.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said while the authorities “don’t know exactly what has taken place” it looks as if it is “another crime in the litany of crimes that we can lay at Russia’s door”.
Speaking to parliament, Johnson described Russia as a “malign and disruptive force” and told MPs that “no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go unsanctioned or unpunished.” He added the case had “echoes of the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006”.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Johnson’s comments were “wild”, and Russia’s embassy in London said it was seriously concerned by British media reporting that was demonising the country. It accused Johnson of reading a “script of yet another anti-Russian campaign”.
Underlining how seriously the UK Government is taking the issue, Prime Minister Theresa May was briefed at a meeting of the National Security Council on the investigation and Home Secretary Amber Rudd will chair a meeting of the emergency committee Cobra on Wednesday morning to discuss the incident in Salisbury.
In Wiltshire, as the investigation widened on Tuesday night, at least two people left a contamination tent inside a police cordon wearing protective suits and gas masks.
Zizzi restaurant has now been shut for 24 hours by police, who said the move was a “precaution” on Monday night.
Yulia Skripal was named as one of the victims for the first time on Tuesday. According to the BBC, she lives in Russia but was visiting the UK, and her relatives have not heard from her for two days.
A former associate of murdered ex-KGB agent Litvinenko, who died after being poisoned by radioactive polonium-210, has alleged the incident in Salisbury bears the hallmarks of a state-ordered assassination.
Yuri Felshtinsky co-authored a 2001 book with Litvinenko five years before he was poisoned in a plot which an official inquiry concluded had probably been authorised by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Felshtinsky said in a statement: “Poisoning is the method of choice for the FSB. In the context of the Russian presidential election this has all hallmarks of a Putin assassination. He is warning anyone in the FSB never to defect as they’ll be hunted down and killed.
“As in this case Sergei Skripal was a colonel in the FSB like Alexander Litvinenko. The FSB always kills defectors as a loyalty warning to its agents.”
The Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said on Tuesday: “Clearly it’s a very unusual case and the critical thing is to get to the bottom of what has caused this incident as quickly as possible.”
Asked about Russian-linked deaths in the UK, Rowley said: “There are deaths which attract attention. I think we have to remember that Russian exiles are not immortal, they do all die and there can be a tendency for some conspiracy theories. But likewise we have to be alive to the fact of state threats, as illustrated by the Litvinenko case.”
Exiled Russian journalist Oleg Kashin told HuffPost UK it was likely the incident would stoke conspiracies within Russia. “Many people (there) believe the western secret services could kill somebody to discredit the Russian authorities. Many people will see this event as an anti-Putin provocation.”
“The standard formula in Russia about this will be: ‘We are not guilty, but it’s good he was killed’,” Kashin added.
Skripal, once a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, was convicted of treason in Moscow and given refuge in Britain after he was exchanged in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the west as part of the Cold War-style spy swap on the tarmac of Vienna Airport.
CCTV footage from Salisbury appears to show a man and woman walking through an alley between where the critically-ill former spy had dinner and the bench where he and his daughter were later found unconscious.
The CCTV of the couple was recorded by Snap Fitness. Freya Church, 27, who spotted a man and a woman “slumped” and “passed out” on the bench on Sunday told the Press Association the couple in the CCTV images were “100%” the people she had seen earlier that day.
The gym worker, from Salisbury, said: “She was leaning on him, slumped.
“She looked passed out and he was looking up doing these hand movements (gesticulating upwards with arms). His eyes were glazed. To be honest I thought they were just homeless.”
Snap Fitness manager Cain Prince, 28, told the Salisbury Journal: “Police had a good look at the footage and were interested in these two people. It was the only image they took away. They wanted a list of everyone in the gym between 3pm and 4pm as well.”
One witness who saw the pair being tended to by paramedics told the BBC: “He looked very ill, he was being sick – he did not look well at all.
“He was conscious at the time. Originally I thought he was one of the homeless people, I thought he had taken something and overdosed, but apparently not.”
Asked about the man’s companion, he said: “She was surrounded by paramedics and he was a few minutes after I arrived as well.”
One member of the emergency services remains in hospital after dealing with the incident, Wiltshire Police said. The force declined to elaborate on a BBC report that two of its officers dealing with the incident had been admitted to hospital on Monday with “minor symptoms” including itchy eyes and wheezing.
On Tuesday, the force confirmed that the Met Police’s Counter Terrorism Policing network is leading the investigation, because it has the specialist expertise to do so.
A spokesman for Wiltshire Police added that a number of places - including the Zizzi restaurant and the Bishop’s Mill pub in The Maltings – had been “secured” as part of the investigation.
The statement added: “At this time, we cannot confirm how long these cordons will remain in place. We have access to a wide range of specialist resources and services that are helping us to understand what we are or aren’t dealing with at this time.
“We would continue to appeal to any members of the public who may have information in relation to this incident to contact us immediately via 101 or 999.”
While the authorities say there was no known risk to the public, some investigators wore yellow chemical suits and an officer in an unmarked car remains outside the restaurant.
After widespread global coverage of the incident, Russia’s embassy in London said it was seriously concerned by British media reporting and complained that the incident was being used to demonise Russia.
“The way the situation being described by British media causes serious concern,” a spokesman for the embassy said in a statement. “The British media are swiftly launching a new phase of the anti-Russian campaign.”
It later posted a short response to Johnson’s address to MPs, saying ironically: “We are impressed by the statement of the Foreign Secretary in Parliament today. The Foreign Secretary spoke in such a manner as if the investigation was already over and Russia was found responsible for what had happened in Salisbury.”
The statement continued: “We regret that instead of a proper official clarification on the issue the Foreign Secretary chose to threaten Russia with retribution. Looks like the script of yet another anti-Russian campaign has been already written.”
The case has invited comparisons to the attack and subsequent death of Litvinenko, 43, who was an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years to the day before he was poisoned. He 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.
The Kremlin said it was ready to cooperate if Britain asks it for help investigating the incident with Skripal. “Nobody has approached us with such a request,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. “Moscow is always open for cooperation.”
Since finding refuge in Britain, Skripal lived quietly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found unconscious on Sunday.
On Tuesday, a white and yellow police forensics tent covered the bench where he was taken ill.
The Sun newspaper reported that his wife was killed in a car accident shortly after her arrival in Britain. His 43-year-old son died last year in St Petersburg while on holiday with his girlfriend last year, the BBC Home Affairs Correspondent Tom Symonds said.
A neighbour of Skripal said the former spy seemed to be a “happy” person living in a “normal house”.
James Puttock said: “He seems to be a happy person, he walked past, I would say hello, he would say hello, that was it. He had a house-warming party when he moved in, put a note through the door but I didn’t go.”
He said he believed four people had lived in Skripal’s home at one point, but was unsure of how many people were currently living there.
He added: “It is very quiet here, it’s nice. I don’t know if it’s put us in any danger. When you look into the stories it does seem very bad but I don’t think the police would allow us to be here if it wasn’t safe.”
Another Russian, Alexander Perepilichny, who had been helping a Swiss investigation into a Russian money-laundering scheme, was found dead in 2012 in Britain.
Police ruled out foul play despite suspicions he might have been murdered with a rare poison. An inquest has yet to give a definitive conclusion as to how he died.