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UK: Nerve agent attack on ex-spy was 'brazen and reckless'

March 8, 2018
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Whoever attacked a former Russian spy with a rare nerve agent is guilty of a "brazen and reckless act," and Britain will respond without hesitation when it becomes clear who is responsible, the country's security minister said Thursday.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said enormous resources were being used to determine poisoned Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33. The pair were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury on Sunday, triggering a police investigation led by counterterrorism detectives.

Skripal and his daughter are in critical but stable condition at a hospital in Salisbury. A police officer who came to their aid is in a serious condition, though he is conscious and talking, Rudd said. He was identified Thursday as Sgt. Nick Bailey.

"The use of a nerve agent on British soil is a brazen and reckless act," Rudd told lawmakers in the House of Commons. "This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way."

As speculation centered on suspicions that Russia was behind the attack, Rudd said "people are right to want to know who to hold to account. But if we are to be rigorous in this investigation we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry on their investigation."

Rudd said the "government will act without hesitation as the facts become clearer."

The Russian Embassy in London, which has mocked other British politicians for suggesting Russian involvement, tweeted that it agreed with Rudd: "First evidence then conclusions on Mr. Skripal's case. Responsible political approach."

Police have refused to speculate on who is behind the attack, but many have focused on Russia because of the case's similarity to the 2006 killing of another former Russian spy who was poisoned in London with radioactive polonium-210. A public inquiry found that Russia was responsible for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and that President Vladimir Putin probably approved it.

The Russian government has denied any involvement in the Litvinenko killing or the attempted murder of Skripal, a former Russian agent who had served jail time in his homeland for spying for Britain before being freed in a spy swap.

In an interview with the BBC, Rudd refused to speculate about what nerve agent may have been used, but she confirmed that it was a "very rare" toxic substance.

The rarity of the material buttresses suggestions that a state actor was involved.

Chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie of the research project CBW Events, which records the use of chemical and biological weapons, said the highly public attack appeared to be "an expression of power" intended to send a message.

"There's echoes of Litvinenko — you are doing it in a way that makes it obvious you're doing it," he said.

Russia is "obviously a clear candidate," but it is too soon to say who was behind the attack, Guthrie added.

"It's also possible there could be some troublemaker out there who wants to make it look like it was Russia," he said.

Nerve agents are chemical compounds that block nerve cells from sending messages to each other and the organs, preventing the body from working normally. They can be administered in gas or liquid form, causing symptoms including vomiting, breathlessness, paralysis and often death.

The banned VX nerve agent was used to kill the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader last year in Malaysia.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog based in The Hague, said Thursday the Skripal case was "of great concern," adding it was in touch with British authorities over the attack.

Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said there was a low risk to the public, but experts said nerve agents are highly dangerous and volatile.

"Nerve agents are not materials that can be made at home," said Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London. "Their level of toxicity is such that they are only to be manufactured in specialized facilities."

Sella said authorities will be looking to find impurities and residues that might provide clues to the precise chemical process used to manufacture the material. He added that if authorities found the container used to deliver the material, "it might well be possible to trace the origin of the substance."

Police and forensics officers are searching Skripal's home in Salisbury, a medieval city known for its towering cathedral, located 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of London, as well as a pub and a restaurant he and his daughter are believed to have visited on Sunday.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia's GRU military intelligence service, was convicted in 2006 of spying for Britain and imprisoned. He was freed in 2010 as part of a widely publicized spy swap in which the U.S. agreed to hand over 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell found operating in America in return for four Russians convicted of spying for the West.

Those who knew him in Salisbury were shocked, describing him as friendly and outgoing — hardly a man hiding out.

The owner of a local convenience shop frequented by Skripal described him as one of her favorite customers. Ebru Ozturk said she made sure to stock the food he liked, particularly smoked bacon and Polish salami.

"Usually he plays lottery and scratch cards," said Ozturk, 41. "Plus a few weeks he was lucky as well and laughed about it."


Jo Kearney in Salisbury, England, and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Richard Guthrie as Griffiths on one occasion.



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