AN ex-Russian spy who is believed to have been poisoned in a UK shopping centre had contacted cops fearing for his life after the mysterious deaths of his wife and son.
Retired spy Colonel Sergei Skripal, 66, and a woman - believed to be his daughter - are both critically ill in a Wiltshire hospital after being found slumped in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury.
Police said the pair were exposed to an unidentified substance and have cordoned off a Zizzi restaurant nearby "as a precaution" which would suggest that one or both of the victims had dined there.
Recent reports said Skripal was fearing for his life after his wife died in a car crash shortly after arriving in the UK while his son also killed in a road accident in Russia.
Investigators were scrambling to identify the chemical used in the attack which has sparked fears of a Kremlin-backed hit on Skripal, who was jailed for treason in Russia and came to Britain in a 2010 spy swap.
The incident also has echoes of the 2006 killing of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London.
Emergency crews in protective suits decontaminated the scene where Skripal, who came to Britain in a spy swap involving flame-haired double agent Anna Chapman, was found.
What we know so far:
- Ex-KGB spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and a woman - believed to be his daughter - are in a critical condition in Salisbury after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'
- Police are investigating a CCTV image which is believed to show the former double agent before the incident
- A Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury has been cordoned off 'as a precaution'
- Skripal and the woman were found slumped on a bench while one of them had vomited nearby
- Reports say Skripal feared for his life after the death of his wife and son in car crashes
- Skripal was jailed for 13 years in 2006 after being found guilty of sharing Russian state secrets to MI6
- In 2010 he was swapped for glamour spy Anna Chapman as part of a deal between Russia and the US
- The incident echoes of the killing of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko
The use of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) suits fuelled speculation the substance could have been radioactive or an airborne poison such as anthrax.
Officials are urging anyone in the area who feels ill to contact 111.
Last night Litvinenko's widow Marina told the Telegraph: "It looks similar to what happened to my husband but we need more information. We need to know the substance. Was it radioactive?"
Skripal and his female companion, thought to be in her 30s, were found on Sunday afternoon slumped on a bench in the shopping centre while one of them had vomited nearby.
Who is Sergei Skripal?
- Sergei Skripal was born on June 23 1951.
- He was arrested in December 2004 after Russia accused him of passing on identifties of its spies onto the UK's Secret Intelligence Service MI6.
- It claimed Skripal had been paid the $100,000 (£72,270) for the information which he had been supplying since in 1990s.
- At the time he was serving in the Russian Ground Forces.
- Skripal was said to have passed secrets to MI6 through a James Bond-style fake rock hidden in Moscow park.
- Russian secret services exposed the rock in 2006, revealing how agents transmitted data to it via a hidden handheld device.
- He was found guilty of 'high treason in the form of espinoage' and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
- However he was released by Moscow in 2010 following a 'spy swap' deal made between the US and Russia.
- Among the trade-off was glamour spy Anna Chapman.
- He was nicknamed 'the spy with the Louis Vuitton bag' after pictures showed him carrying a bag at an airport en route to meeting his handlers.
- Skripal was then flown to the UK and granted refuge. After settling in Salisbury in a £350,000 semi-detatched house his wife Liudmila who died in 2012.
Skripal was taken to the city’s hospital by ambulance while his daughter was flown by air ambulance and their arrival sparked the shutdown of the hospital’s A&E department.
Police declared a major incident and quarantined key locations including the A&E department, where up to 12 people began vomiting.
As emergency crews cleared the substance left near the bench, others were called to decontaminate the hospital.
First reports suggested traces of the opiate fentanyl — a synthetic toxin many times stronger than heroin — had been detected at the scene.
But that was later linked to unconnected incident involving another couple coincidentally in the shopping centre.
RUSSIA'S THIRST FOR REVENGE
By Nick Parker
PUTIN’S henchmen were desperate to take revenge on Sergei Skripal after he gave MI6 the identities of hundreds of Russian agents.
He was exposed as a double agent in 2006 and a Kremlin official admitted after his trial: “His activities caused a significant blow to Russia.”
Another source said: “This man is a big hero for MI6.”
The loathing for Skripal was spelled out by Russian secret services historian Nikolai Luzan, who claimed many of the agents identified by him in the West were “secretly arrested” or “vanished”.
He referred to Skripal in a 2014 interview as “this b*****d” — adding “just imagine what muck this man did to other people”.
Skripal was “turned” by MI6 in the mid-1990s.
He was called “the Louis Vuitton spy” because of his love of designer gear.
Witness Freya Church, who was in the centre, said: “It looked like they’d been taking something quite strong.
“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’d passed out, maybe.
‘’He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky.”
Officers said last night that a Zizzi restaurant in the city centre has been closed in connection with the incident.
Dust, pollen and samples from the two latest victims are thought to be being examined at the MoD’s Porton Down labs, close to Salisbury.
Justice Secretary David Gauke refused to comment on the attack this morning.
But challenged by the Sun he said he “did not want to be drawn into that at this stage”.
He added: “Jumping to conclusions would not be appropriate.”
Skripal was regarded as a traitor in Russia where he was jailed for 13 years in 2006.
The 66-year-old was accused of working for MI6 over several years, in particular disclosing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.
He was sentenced to 13 years in a high-security prison in August 2006, before being freed in a 2010 deal which saw 10 Russian sleeper agents expelled from the US.
Skripal retired from military intelligence, often known by its Russian-language acronym GRU, in 1999.
He went on to work at the Foreign Ministry until 2003 before becoming involved in business.
PUTIN A PLOTTER
A PUBLIC inquiry into the London killing of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko said he was poisoned by a Russian agent — probably with President Putin’s approval.
The radioactive polonium-210 that killed Litvinenko is believed to have been given to him in a cup of tea by ex-KGB man Andrei Lugovoi after the pair met at a hotel.
Litvinenko had been an officer with the Federal Security Service, (FSB) successors to the KGB.
He fled to Britain in 2000 where he worked for MI6 after being granted asylum.
Litvinenko, 43, was a fierce critic of the Putin regime, having initially fallen out with him over corruption at the FSB.
In 2013 exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky was found hanged at his mansion in Sunninghill, Berks.
A coroner recorded an open verdict but his daughter claims he was killed for criticising Putin.
He was arrested in 2004 in Moscow and admitted he was recruited by British intelligence in 1995 and had provided information about GRU agents in Europe, for which he was paid more than £72,000 ($100,000).
Four years later, he was freed and came to Britain in the high-profile spy swap with Chapman heading back to Russia as part of the deal.
The glamorous redhead, once ordered to seduce US whistleblower Edward Snowden, went on to become a model and media personality.
Sources said hardline president Vladimir Putin would never have forgiven Skripal after his conviction for treason.
Former KGB chief Putin once said: “Traitors always end in a bad way. Usually from a drinking habit, or from drugs, right in the street.”
The Kremlin said today it was ready to cooperate if Britain asks it for help investigating the incident.
"Nobody has approached us with such a request," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters.
He added: “Moscow is always open for cooperation."
When asked to respond to British media speculation that Russia had poisoned Skripal, Peskov said: “It didn't take them long."
Calling the incident "a tragic situation," he said the Kremlin did not have information about what had happened.
"We don't have information about what the reason (for the incident) could be, what this person was doing, and what it could be linked to," said Peskov.
He said he did not know whether Skripal was still formally a Russian national.
Litvinenko was killed by two FSB spies who slipped radioactive polonium 210 into his tea pot at a Mayfair hotel after he fled to Britain.
Intelligence chiefs have declared that a vengeful Putin “probably approved” his murder.
Skripal appears to have tried to keep a low profile for the past eight years after starting a new life in Wiltshire.
But inquiries showed his name and address was, inexplicably, on the voters’ electoral roll and open to public scrutiny.
It was unclear whether he was still viewed as an asset by British intelligence or whether he had been given a safe house or a secret identity.
Neighbour Mark Medhurst, 43, told the Daily Mail that Skripal drove a BMW and kept the lights off at his home.
James Puttock, 47, told the Guardian his neighbour was "very quiet".
He said: "He was always walking past, but he did sometimes drive his BMW 3 Series. He never really looked smart, he looked very casual."
Meanwhile, his compatriot Sutyagin, who always protested his innocence, told the Associated Press in an interview in August 2010 he wanted to return to Russia, saying: "It's my country. I am not on the run."
He went on to become a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute specialising in US-Russian relations.
Of his conversations with Skripal on the 2010 flight out of Russia, he told the Guardian: "He talked about his family. It seemed to me it was his family which was his major joy."
The Met’s SO15 counter-terrorism branch have been notified about the suspected poisoning in Salisbury, although Wiltshire Police are taking the lead role in the investigation.
MI5 and MI6 are also liaising closely with police.
Wiltshire’s Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Craig told a press conference last night: “This has not been declared as a counter-terrorism incident and we would urge people not to speculate.
“However, I must emphasise that we retain an open mind and we will continue to review this position.
“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.”
The Russian embassy said: “Neither relatives nor legal representatives of the said person, nor the British authorities have addressed the embassy in this regard.”
Wiltshire Police said: “Public Health England are aware of this and have reiterated that, based on the evidence to date, there is no known risk to the public's health.
“However, as a precaution they have advised that if you feel ill contact NHS on 111.
“If you feel your own or another's health is significantly deteriorating, ring 999.”
DEADLY radioactive polonium has been used before by Russians to target enemies.
The element is lethal to humans if ingested. It causes acute liver and kidney damage and other symptoms similar to the final stages of cancer.
Polonium was discovered in 1898 by scientist Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, who named it after Marie’s homeland Poland.
It is hugely expensive to manufacture and is so toxic that its use is restricted.