SERGEI SKRIPAL, RUSSIAN SPY
Sergei Skripal is seen here in 2004, surrounded by Russian agents, after being accused of selling Russian secrets to Britain. Later, in a prisoner swap, Skripal was allowed to settle in the UK. He has now been ‘poisoned’ by a deadly chemical allegedly administered by Russian secrets agents working on behalf of the Putin government. This is clearly an attempt by the British to start throwing mud at Putin and blame him for stirring up trouble in Britain by ordering clandestine assassinations on British soil.
A Russian agent convicted of spying for Britain was fighting for his life last night amid suspicions he was poisoned in a shopping centre in Wiltshire. Sergei Skripal, 66, was in intensive care after being exposed to a mysterious substance as he sat on a bench in the centre of Salisbury. A 33-year-old woman who was with him, is also in critical condition. Both had collapsed and were unconscious when they were discovered.
Reports suggest Col Skripal had recently gone to police claiming he was fearing for his life.
The incident comes a little over a decade after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko — pictured here — the former Russian agent who was poisoned by radioactive polonium in a London hotel.
Colonel Skripal, 66, a former Russian intelligence agent with the FSB, was jailed in Moscow for spying for Britain but had arrived in the UK in 2010 as part of a prisoner exchange. Anna Chapman, a Russia-born secret agent who had acquired British citizenship and who was detained by US authorities, was sent back to Russia along with nine other agents.
Litvinenko’s widow Marina Litvinenko told the Telegraph last night: “It looks similar to what happened to my husband but we need more information. We need to know the substance. Was it radioactive?”
Colonel Skripal and his female companion was discovered on Sunday afternoon. An eyewitness told how she saw the pair seemingly “frozen” in place.
Georgia Pridham, 25, had been for a hen do lunch and was walking back to her friend’s car when she saw the couple slumped on a bench.
She told the Telegraph: “He was quite smartly dressed, which caught my eye. He had his palms up to the sky as if he was shrugging and was staring at the building in front of him.“
He had a woman sat next to him on the bench who was slumped on his shoulder. She looked grey and had her hood up.
“I thought ‘that is quite odd, they must be on something’. I remember looking back at him thinking he would catch my eye but he was staring dead straight. He was conscious but it was like he was frozen and he was slightly rocking back and forward.
“She was just slumped onto his shoulder. She had a Parka jacket on with her hood up. I thought maybe she was asleep or passed out. He had a jacket and some smart trousers on. He didn’t look like the type to get high.”
The couple were unconscious when they were rushed to Salisbury District Hospital. Authorities later declared a major incident and its Accident & Emergency unit had to be closed.
On Monday night police said Zizzi restaurant, which was close to where Col Skripal and the woman were found, was closed in connection with the incident following consultation with Public Health England, suggesting one or both of them may have dined there beforehand.
Police wearing protective suits on Monday night were examining the area around the bench where the couple had collapsed. One well-placed source told The Telegraph a number of police officers who had initially attended the scene had also been treated for possible contamination although this newspaper was unable to verify that.
One report suggested a ‘specialist chemical response unit’ had removed an ‘unknown substance’ which had been wrapped in several protective layers.
The prospect of a state-sponsored assassination on Colonel Skripal was immediately raised by opponents of President Putin. Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and high profile critic of the Russian leader, tweeted: “After the UK’s pathetic response to Litvinenko’s assassination with polonium in London, why wouldn’t Putin do it again?”
Colonel Skripal is thought to have been living quietly in Salisbury for the past seven years. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 after being found guilty of “high treason in the form of espionage” in a Moscow military court.
Russia alleged that Colonel Skripal had been paid $100,000 by MI6 in exchange for passing them the identities of Russian secret agents operating in Europe. He was branded a traitor and a disgrace.
A Russian nuclear expert Igor Sutyagin, who had been convicted of spying in 2004, was also sent to the UK with Colonel Skripal as part of the spy swap. Dr Sutyagin, now a senior research fellow with the Royal United services Institute in London, last night said he only knew Colonel Skripal for the duration of their flight from Moscow.
“If everything points to these people, then that’s a problem for them,” he said.
Dr Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, said: “If confirmed, this would be the second case of a former Russian ‘spy’ being exposed to an unknown substance in the UK. The first, of course, was Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by polonium-210 in 2006.
“While it is too soon to attribute responsibility, it would be foolhardy if the authorities were not to explore the Russia connection in relation to Mr Skripal’s illness.”
In a statement, temporary Assistant Chief Constable, Craig Holden of Wiltshire Police, said: “The two people – a man aged in his 60s, and a woman aged in her 30s – were found unconscious on a bench in The Maltings in Salisbury. “Police officers, as well as colleagues from the ambulance and fire services attended the scene and cordons were put in place.”
The statement continued: “The pair, who we believe are known to each other, did not have any visible injuries and were taken to Salisbury District Hospital. They are currently being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance. Both are currently in a critical condition in intensive care. Because we are still at the very early stages of the investigation, we are unable to ascertain whether or not a crime has taken place.”
The incident will inevitably raise concern that Russian assassins had struck again, 11 years after Litvinenko was murdered in 2006.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian secret services, said: “The Russians have more animus towards ‘traitors’ than dissidents, as it were.” But he said it would be unusual to target an ex-spy who had been jailed, debriefed and exchanged, adding: “One thing that made Alexander Litvinenko a target was that he was still working with the security services here and with others. If there was a belief, rightly or wrongly, that Skripal was working for the security services, or done something else to make him a person of interest, it would put him back in the cross hairs.”
Early reports suggested that colonel Skripal and the unnamed woman may have been exposed to the synthetic drug, Fentanyl, which is up to 10,000 times more powerful than heroin and has been linked to scores of deaths in the UK. (See endnote below on Fentanyl)
Authorities declined to speculate as investigations continue.
The widow of Alexander Litvinenko has said she fears the discovery of a former Russian spy critically ill near his home after being exposed to an unknown substance bears similarities to the assassination of her husband. Marina Litvinenko said if Sergei Skripal was found to have been poisoned, it showed “nothing has changed” since her husband was murdered.
A public inquiry found Mr Litvinenko (pictured above right) was probably murdered in 2006 on the direct orders of Vladimir Putin.
The former KGB officer who died from radiation poisoning was killed by two Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the inquiry report said. There was a “strong probability” they were acting on behalf of the Russian FSB secret service, the report added.
Mrs Litvinenko 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? We don’t have enough information about what definitely happened.”
She added: “I cannot say I am worried but it is really strange but I need to know what has happened and why. Logically it is very strange to do this before a presidential election. It is really difficult to know who might be behind this. The only thing I can say is if this is a poisoning it is just nothing has changed since my husband died.”
Endnote on Fenatnyl
Q: What is fentanyl?
A: Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery.
Q: How do people use it?
A: When prescribed by a physician, fentanyl is often administered via injection, transdermal patch, or in lozenges.
Q: What does it do?
A: Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opioid drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain’s reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation.
Q: Why is it dangerous?
A: Opioid receptors are also found in the areas of the brain that control breathing rate. High doses of opioids can cause breathing to stop completely, which can lead to death.
Who is Sergeo Skripal?