British police hunt poisoning culprit

SEVERE CONDITION::A senior unnamed government official said of former double-agent Sergei Skripal that ‘the feeling is that he is not going to make it out of this’


Fri, Mar 09, 2018 - Page 6

British detectives were yesterday scrambling to uncover who poisoned a Russian former double-agent and his daughter with a nerve agent, as doctors battled to save their lives and that of a police officer who also fell ill after coming to their aid.

Sergei Skripal, 66, who moved to Britain in a 2010 spy swap, was in a critical condition in hospital along with his daughter, Yulia, after they collapsed on a bench outside a shopping center on Sunday.

The brazen poisoning in the southwestern English city of Salisbury is already being linked with Russia by British lawmakers and the media, sparking an angry response 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.

A police officer also fell ill after coming to their aid, but is showing signs of recovery, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said yesterday.

“The two targets are still in very serious condition, the policeman is talking and is engaging so I’m more optimistic for him, but it’s too early to say,” she told ITV1’s Good Morning Britain.

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.

The Times, quoting a senior unnamed British government official, said Sergei 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.

Rudd called for “cool heads” over the poisoning amid swirling speculation.

Police said they were keeping an open mind about what happened, but British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson has alluded to Russia.

He noted the “echoes” with the 2006 poisoning in London of former Russian spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, which Britain has blamed on Russia.

Moscow accused British lawmakers and journalists of whipping up anti-Russian sentiment, with Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling reporters the story “was straight away used to boost an anti-Russian campaign in the media.”

Zakharova earlier said Johnson’s comments were “wild.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of counterterrorism detectives were working “around the clock” to create a time line of the victims’ movements, with “many hours” of video under review, police said.

Investigators believe Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter were in Salisbury city center for several hours before they were found slumped on a bench.

They reportedly had lunch at a pizza restaurant, Zizzi, and visited a pub before being discovered outside the shopping center, where onlookers said they appeared “out of it.”

An anonymous witness who was in the pub, which has been closed by police, told the BBC on Wednesday that Sergei Skripal was there behaving erratically and at one point shouting loudly.

Rowley appealed for information from those in Salisbury on Sunday.

“Your memory of that afternoon and your movements alone could help us with missing pieces of the investigation,” he said.

The Times reported that police are probing whether Yulia Skripal, who arrived in Britain from Moscow last week with “gifts from friends,” might have inadvertently brought the nerve agent into the nation.

The paper previously said investigators would also examine the 2012 death of Sergei Skripal’s wife from cancer and that of his 44-year-old son last year in St Petersburg, reportedly from liver problems.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was updated on the case at a meeting of her national security council on Tuesday, but has declined to publicly comment on the ongoing investigation.

However, she confirmed the government might consider a boycott by British officials and dignitaries of this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia if it were found to have been involved.

The possible boycott — which would not include the players — was first raised by Johnson on Tuesday, when he told lawmakers that he was not pointing fingers for Sergei Skripal’s collapse, but made several references to Russia.

He warned Britain would respond “appropriately and robustly” if a government was found to be responsible.

British media outlets on Wednesday reported that Prince William would now not attend this summer’s World Cup in Russia, citing royal sources.

The prince has attended recent tournaments in his role as president of the Football Association.