LONDON — A former Russian spy and his daughter who were the target of an attempted assassination in England remained in a “very serious condition” Thursday as the British government faced growing suspicions that Moscow may have been involved.
UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd will appear before Parliament to update lawmakers after police declared that a nerve agent was used in the attack in the southern English city of Salisbury on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
In an interview with UK breakfast show Good Morning Britain, Rudd declined to speculate on who might be responsible.
“If we move to attribution then we need to make sure we have all the details of what happened along the way so that we can be absolutely clear about it,” Rudd said.
The affair took on a new dimension with the revelation on Wednesday evening that one of the first police officers on the scene had fallen sick and was seriously ill in the hospital.
Rudd said that Skripal and his daughter were in a “very serious condition” but that the policeman was now “talking and engaging.”
Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped on a bench near a shopping center in Salisbury on Sunday. They remain in the hospital as the investigation into how they fell ill gathers pace.
In a statement on Wednesday evening Mark Rowley, the head of the counter-terrorism division at London’s Metropolitan police, declared a “major incident” and said hundreds of police officers, forensic experts and government chemical analysts were involved in the inquiry. Rowley said the attack was being treated as attempted murder, and that Skripal and his daughter were deliberately targeted.
If a Moscow link were proved, it would plunge relations between the West and Russia to a new low, and would call into question the British government’s ability to protect residents of the UK at home. Rowley said officers from Wiltshire police, the local force, were providing support to the sick officer and his family.
Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said the evidence did not suggest any wider danger to the public.
Police say they know the nerve agent used in the attack, but have declined to say what it was nor how they suspect it was administered. They called on anyone who visited the area on Sunday, including a branch of the Zizzi restaurant chain or the nearby Bishop’s Mill pub, to come forward with any information that might help them piece together what happened.
Rudd earlier expressed her “heartfelt thanks” to the emergency services for their “bravery and professionalism in continuing to deal with the incident in Salisbury.” On Twitter, Rudd said: “My thoughts are with all those affected, including the police officer who is being treated in hospital.”
The Russian embassy in London told reporters it had not received substantive details about the case, which it said was “rather worrying.”
A spokesman described comments by UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who vowed a “robust response” in the event that state involvement was proved, as “strongly anti-Russian.” He described the comments as an attempt to politicize the affair, and attacked the media for aiding the government’s efforts.
“The parliamentary debate as well as the Government stance are a testament of London’s growing unpredictability as a partner in international relations, whose policy towards Russia is inconsistent and looks rather miscalculated, not least in the eyes of the Russian public” the press officer added.
Skripal is believed to have lived in the UK since he was released from a Russian jail in 2010. He was convicted in Russia of spying for Britain before he was granted refuge in the UK after a high-profile spy swap in 2010 between the United States and Russia.
His daughter Yulia is thought to be one of the few members of the former spy’s immediate family still alive after his wife and son died in recent years.
Local convenience store manager Ebru Ozturk, who saw Skripal at his shop just days before the incident on Sunday, told CNN that he was a “kind customer” who would usually come in once a week and buy Polish-smoked bacon and scratch-and-win lottery cards.
“He is (a) regular customer, he is so kind and he seems to me an educated person. Very polite,” said Ozturk. “I don’t talk too much to the customers, but he was, you know, one of the very kind customers.”
The executive director of the Europe-wide police agency Europol, Rob Wainwright, described the use of a nerve agent to attack a former Russian spy in the UK as an “outrageous affront to our security in Europe and our way of life,” but added that people should “exercise caution before jumping to any conclusions.”
However, he said, “there are not 101 likely offenders,” apparently a reference to the difficulty in producing nerve agent, which would limit the number of suspects with the ability to carry out the attack.
Nerve agents are rarely used outside the battlefield and require considerable expertise to develop. Exposure to potent doses can result in death.
Sarin was used in the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway, carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which killed 13 people and injured 5,500 others. Another nerve agent, VX, was used to kill Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur international airport in February 2017.
In his comments to parliament, Johnson said the Salisbury chase had “echoes” of the plight of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died a slow death after drinking tea laced with highly radioactive polonium-210 in 2006 in a hotel in London.
A detailed UK inquiry later concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the operation by Russian agents to kill Litvinenko. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the inquiry as politically motivated.
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