British detectives are scrambling to uncover who poisoned a Russian former doubleagent and his daughter with a nerve agent, as doctors battle to save their lives and that of a policeman who also fell ill after coming to their aid.
Sergei Skripal, 66, who moved to Britain in a 2010 spy swap, is in a critical condition in hospital along with his daughter Yulia after they collapsed on a bench outside a shopping centre on Sunday. The brazen poisoning in the southwestern English city of Salisbury is already being linked with Russia by British politicians and the media, sparking anger in Moscow.
On Wednesday, British police confirmed for the first time that a nerve agent was used and that their probe was now an attempted murder investigation.
“Sadly, in addition, a police officer, who was one of the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital,” Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley told reporters.
Scientific tests by government experts have identified the specific nerve agent used “which will help identify the source,” he added, declining to reveal the exact substance.
British media reports suggest the three victims are seriously ill. Britain’s Sky News, quoting sources, said all three victims are in a coma. The Times newspaper, quoting a senior unnamed British government official, said Skripal’s condition was thought to be particularly severe.
“The feeling is that he is not going to make it out of this,” the source told the newspaper. “I think it could be more positive (for Yulia). They are hopeful that she might be able to pull through.” The paper added that the police officer’s condition was thought to be “less severe.”
Other emergency services personnel who treated the pair required medical treatment at the time but have not been admitted to hospital. In total, 21 people received treatment.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd called for “cool heads” over the poisoning amid swirling speculation. Police say they are keeping an open mind about what happened, but Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has alluded to Russia. He noted the “echoes” with the 2006 poisoning in London of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, which Britain has blamed on Russia.
Moscow accused British politicians and journalists of whipping up anti-Russian sentiment, with Kremlin Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling reporters the story “was straight away used to boost an anti-Russian campaign.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of counter-terrorism detectives are working “around the clock” to create a timeline of the victims’ movements, with “many hours” of CCTV under review, police said. Investigators believe Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter were in Salisbury city centre for several hours before they were found slumped on a bench.