LONDON—Fears of another Kremlin-sanctioned assassination attempt on British soil gripped the authorities on Monday after a former Russian spy, who was granted refuge in the U.K., was left in a critical condition as a result of suspected exposure to an unknown substance.
Sergei Skripal, 66, is a former Russian intelligence officer who was jailed in his homeland for spying for MI6 and allowed to relocate to the West after the most high-profile spy-swap since the Cold War that included sending the infamous Russian spy Anna Chapman back to Russia.
On Monday, he was airlifted to a hospital in South West-England where he and a younger woman were being treated in intensive care. Skripal was found collapsed on a bench with the woman in the riverfront shopping district in the cathedral city of Salisbury.
Wiltshire police say they have not yet confirmed that a crime has taken place but their response to the discovery of the potential victims suggests they are taking that possibility seriously. Officers sealed off the area and later shut down the emergency room at the hospital for fear that the suspected substance could affect other people.
Skripal was a Russian army colonel who worked for the army inteligence unit known as the GRU. He was arrested in 2006 for passing information to the British about Russian spies dating back to the 1990s. The FSB, the notorious successor to the KGB, claimed that Skripal was recruited by the British in the mid-1990s and was paid up to $100,000 into a bank account in Spain for a decade’s worth of spying.
He retired from the GRU in 1999 before joining the Russian Foreign Ministry until 2003. In a trial three years later, the Russians say they discovered that he had been shopping information on Russian spies stationed all over Europe.
He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, but he was released early and allowed to retire in Britain’s picturesque South-West as part of a major spy swap. At the time of his release, his lawyer said Skripal was concerned about his health as he was suffering from diabetes.
Until the British authorities have obtained toxicology reports it will remain unclear whether Skripal’s collapse raises suspicions about Russian influence.
In previous examples of suspected Russian assassinations in Britain, the poison has not been detected until long after the victims had sought medical assistance.
Former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died in agony in a North London hospital after polonium-210 was slipped into a pot of tea at a Mayfair hotel by two Russian agents Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun.
It was weeks before the authorities identified the highly unusual radioactive poison and many more years until an official inquiry formally found that Litvinenko had “probably” been murdered on the orders of the Kremlin.
The case of Alexander Perepilichnyy, a Russian whistleblower who collapsed while running near his home in the suburbs outside London, was even more embarrassing for the British authorities.
Local police initially believed that he had died of natural causes, but a shock toxicology report later suggested the hand of an assassin. Traces of the deadly Gelsemium elegans flower, which is a known weapon of Chinese and Russian contract killers, were found in his stomach.
Perepilichnyy had been due to testify against Russian corruption in Switzerland.
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