Critically ill man is former Russian spy

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Media caption“He was doing strange hand movements, looking up to the sky”: What we know so far

A man who is critically ill after being exposed to an unknown substance in Wiltshire is a Russian national convicted of spying for Britain, the BBC understands.

Sergei Skripal, 66, was granted refuge in the UK following a “spy swap” between the US and Russia in 2010.

He and a woman, 33, were found unconscious on a bench at a shopping centre in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon.

The substance has not been identified.

Wiltshire Police are investigating whether a crime has been committed. They said the pair had no visible injuries but had been found unconscious at the Maltings shopping centre.

They have declared a “major incident” and multiple agencies are investigating. They said it had not been declared as a counter-terrorism incident, but they were keeping an “open mind”.

They said officers did not believe there was any risk to the wider public.

Col Skripal, who is a retired Russian military intelligence officer, was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006 for spying for Britain.

He was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Russia said Col Skripal had been paid $100,000 for the information, which he had been supplying from the 1990s.

He was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 US spies in 2010, as part of a swap. Col Skripal was later flown to the UK.

He and the woman, who police said were known to each other, are both in intensive care at Salisbury District Hospital.

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Media captionWitness: “They looked like they’d been taking something quite strong”

A number of locations in the city centre were cordoned off and teams in full protective gear used hoses to decontaminate the street.

The hospital advised people to attend routine operations and outpatient appointments unless they were contacted. It said its A&E department was open but busy because of the weather.

Neighbours at Sergei Skripal’s home in Salisbury say police arrived around 17:00 GMT on Sunday and have been there ever since.

They said he was friendly and in recent years had lost his wife.

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Media captionTemp Asst Chief Constable Craig Holden: “We are unable to ascertain whether or not a crime has taken place”

Eyewitness Freya Church told the BBC it looked like the two people had taken “something quite strong”.

She said: “On the bench there was a couple, an older guy and a younger girl. She was sort of leant in on him, it looked like she had passed out maybe.

“He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky…

“They looked so out of it I thought even if I did step in I wasn’t sure how I could help.”

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Public Health England has not confirmed what the substance was

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The hospital’s A&E was closed on Monday while two people were treated

The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said government officials were not commenting about events in Salisbury. but that the possibility of an unexplained substance being involved will draw comparisons with the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko was a former intelligence officer who, an inquiry later found, was probably killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin.

Public Health England said its specialists would be joining a “specially convened group” to consider the incident.

What were the charges against Col Skripal?

Col Skripal was convicted of “high treason in the form of espionage” by Moscow’s military court in August 2006. He was stripped off all his titles and awards.

He was alleged by the Russian security service FSB to have begun working for the British secret services while serving in the army in the 1990s.

He had been passing information classified as state secrets and been paid for the work by MI6, the FSB claimed.

Col Skripal pleaded guilty at his trial and co-operated with investigators, reports said at the time.

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