Some 180 British military specialists were deployed to Salisbury Friday to decontaminate sites following the attempted murders of a former Russian double agent and his daughter with a deadly nerve agent.
Sergei Skripal – a 66-year-old former Russian spy who had sold secrets to British intelligence – and his daughter Yulia, 33, are in a critical condition after they were found slumped on a bench near a shopping center in the town on Sunday. Both are unconscious and fighting for their lives.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said Friday that investigators had called in members of the military with expertise in biological and chemical weapons to help remove vehicles and objects that were potentially contaminated with the chemical weapon.
British officials have yet to reveal details about the substance or who deployed it, other than to say it was a rare nerve agent.
Whatever it was, the substance is highly dangerous. Twenty-one people have received medical treatment for possible exposure so far, although only three, including the Skripals, are still receiving treatment.
The third victim is Det. Sgt. Nick Bailey, one of the first police officers to respond to the case. Officials say he is now conscious, but remains in serious condition in hospital. It emerged Friday that Bailey got sick after attending Skripal’s home hours after they were found in the street.
That suggests that the pair were targeted in Skripal’s residence, rather than attacked in the street, as was previously thought. There is also a possibility that Skripal’s daughter may have inadvertently brought the agent with her from Russia. She had flown to London from Moscow the day before the attack.
The British government has refused to be drawn on a possible culprit.
“We will have to wait until we’re absolutely clear what the consequences could be, and what the actual source of this nerve agent has been,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd said in Salisbury Friday. “At the moment, our priority is going to be the incident.”
Russia is the leading suspect, given Skripal’s history; the use of a nerve agent, usually held only in state military arsenals; and the Kremlin’s history of similar attacks. In 2006, FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London with a cup of tea containing radioactive polonium. A public inquiry a decade later found there was a “strong probability” the FSB ordered the killing, and that the operation was “probably” sanctioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement with the attack on the Skripals. Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov said Friday his government was ready to assist “any investigation,” but protested it was “not necessary to hurl unfounded accusations on TV.”
Skripal worked at the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, rising to the rank of colonel. In 2006 he was convicted of treason and jailed for 13 years for passing the identities of undercover Russian agents to British intelligence, who had recruited him in the 1990s.
In 2010, he was pardoned and released in a spy swap, and moved to Salisbury, a town of 45,000 people in southern England.
Cover image: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. (Rufus Cox/Getty Images)