Former Russian spy critically ill in the UK after 'exposure to substance'

Former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, was found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, after 'suspected exposure to unknown substance'  Police are now trying to idenfity the substance

Sergei Skripal pictures in 2006 (Photo: The Guardian)
Sergei Skripal pictures in 2006 (Photo: The Guardian)

One of two people critically ill in a UK hospital after “suspected exposure to an unknown substance” turned out to be a former Russian agent convicted of spying for Britian.

Sergei Skripal, 66 - who was granted refuge in the UK in 2010 as part of a "spy swap" - was found with a 33-year-old woman.

Wiltshire police said that a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s were found unconscious on a bench in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon.

Wiltshire Police said the pair had no visible injuries and officers were investigating whether a crime had been committed.

Meanwhile police have closed the city's Zizzi restaurant "as a precaution".

Temporary assistant chief constable Craig Holden said that the pair were believed to have been known to each other and were in a critical condition. He added: “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.”

Police said Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury has been closed as a precaution (Photo:BBC)
Police said Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury has been closed as a precaution (Photo:BBC)

Who is Sergei Skripal?

Sergei Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer.

He was sentenced in August 2006 in Russia to 13 years in jail for spying for Britain after being convicted of “high treason in the form of espionage”. Russian prosecutors said he had been paid £72,000 by MI6 for information he had been supplying since the 1990s when he was a serving officer.

He was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

He was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 US spies as part of a swap and was later flown to the UK.

It had been assumed that Skripal had been given a new identity, home, and pension. However, Land Registry documents show his house was registered in his real name and was bought for £260,000 with no mortgage on 12 August 2011, just over a year after the spy swap.

Igor Sutyagin, who was swapped at the same time as Skripal and is now in the UK, said it was too early to tell whether Skripal was the victim of foul play.

 “We don’t know. It’s all hypothetical,” he told the UK paper the Guardian.

But Sutyagin said the Kremlin’s view of defectors was clear. “Vladimir Putin was once asked what type of people populate the world. He said traitors and enemies. I was told once by a Russian diplomat in London that Putin compared me to Judas. That is their attitude.”

The possibility of an unexplained substance being involved has drawn comparisons with the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

The Russian dissident and former intelligence officer died in London after drinking tea laced with a radioactive substance.

A public inquiry concluded that his killing had probably been carried out with the approval of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.