Britain warns Russia after former double agent mysteriously falls ill in U.K.
Russian embassy says suggestion of involvement in Sergei Skripal's illness 'is completely untrue'
Britain warned on Tuesday it would respond robustly if Russia was shown to be behind the mysterious illness that struck down a former Russian double agent convicted of betraying dozens of spies to British intelligence.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson named Sergei Skripal, once a colonel in Russia's GRU military intelligence service, and his daughter, Yulia, as the two people who were found unconscious on Sunday on a bench outside a shopping centre in southern England.
Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter were exposed to what police said was an unknown substance in the English city of Salisbury. Both are still critically ill in intensive care.
"We don't know exactly what has taken place in Salisbury, but if it's as bad as it looks, it is another crime in the litany of crimes that we can lay at Russia's door," Johnson told Parliament in London.
"It is clear that Russia, I'm afraid, is now in many respects a malign and disruptive force, and the U.K. is in the lead across the world in trying to counteract that activity."
If Moscow was shown to be behind Skripal's illness, Johnson said, it would be difficult to see how U.K. representation could go to the World Cup in Russia in a normal way. A government source said that meant attendance of ministers or dignitaries.
A statement posted to the Russian embassy in London's website said the events "as described by the British media, causes serious concern."
"Although U.K. law enforcement agencies have not given any substantive comments on this incident, media reports create an impression of a planned operation by the Russian special services, which is completely untrue," the statement attributed to a press officer said.
The embassy said its officials are seeking further detail from the British Foreign Office.
Previous poisoning case
A previous British inquiry said President Vladimir Putin probably approved the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in Litvinenko's killing.
Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years before he was poisoned, died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London's Millennium Hotel.
It took weeks for British doctors to discern the cause of Litvinenko's illness.
His murder sent Britain's relations with Russia to what was then a post-Cold War low. Relations suffered further from Russia's annexation of Crimea and military backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebels trying to topple him.
Keir Giles, the director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre in Cambridge, England, said he "would be surprised if this were not linked back to Russia in some direct way."
It's hard not to see a pattern of the attacks becoming more and more brazen.- Keir Giles, director of Conflict Studies Research Centre
He said he could not rule out an overdose or some other kind of accidental poisoning — but found it hard to picture such a scenario "that would lead to a full-scale decontamination of the street and the hospital."
Giles also invoked a string of suspicious deaths of Russian government opponents in Britain since Litvinenko's slaying.
"It's not just Litvinenko," he said. "It's hard not to see a pattern of the attacks becoming more and more brazen."
Counterterrorism police involved
London's Metropolitan Police said Tuesday the Counterterrorism Policing Network will lead the investigation because "it has the specialist expertise" to deal with the unusual case.
While the British authorities said there was no known risk to the public from the unidentified substance, they sealed off the area where Skripal was found, a pizza restaurant called Zizzi and the Bishop's Mill pub in the centre of Salisbury.
Some investigators at one point wore yellow hazardous material suits, though most police at the scene did not.
Skripal, who passed the identity of dozens of spies to the MI6 foreign intelligence agency, was given refuge in Britain after he was exchanged in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the West as part of a Cold War-style spy swap at Vienna airport.
The Kremlin said it was ready to co-operate if Britain asked it for help investigating the incident with Skripal.
Calling it a "tragic situation," Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had no information about the incident.
Asked to respond to British media speculation that Russia had poisoned Skripal, Peskov said: "It didn't take them long."
Russia's embassy in London said the incident was being used to demonize Russia and that it was seriously concerned by British media reporting of the Skripal incident.
Russia's foreign spy service, known as the SVR, said it had no comment to make. Russia's foreign ministry, and the Russian counter-intelligence service, the FSB, did not immediately respond to questions submitted by Reuters about the case.
From Moscow to Salisbury
Skripal was arrested in 2004 by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) on suspicion of betraying dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 after a secret trial.
Skripal, who was shown wearing a track suit in a cage in court during the sentencing, had admitted betraying agents to MI6 in return for money, some of it paid into a Spanish bank account, Russian media said at the time.
But he was pardoned in 2010 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev as part of a swap to bring 10 Russian agents held in the United States back to Moscow.
The swap, one of the biggest since the Cold War ended in 1991, took place on the tarmac of Vienna airport where a Russian and a U.S. jet parked side by side before the agents were exchanged.
One of the Russian spies exchanged for Skripal was Anna Chapman. She was one of 10 who tried to blend into American society in an apparent bid to get close to power brokers and learn secrets. They were arrested by the FBI in 2010.
The returning spies were greeted as heroes in Moscow. Putin, himself a former KGB officer, sang patriotic songs with them.
Skripal, though, was cast as a traitor by Moscow. He is thought to have done serious damage to Russian spy networks in Britain and Europe.
The GRU spy service, created in 1918 under revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, is controlled by the military general staff and reports directly to the president. It has spies spread across the world.
Since emerging from the John le Carre world of high espionage and betrayal, Skripal lived modestly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found unconscious at 4:15 p.m. local time Sunday.
Police outside Skripal’s home. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cbc?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cbc</a> <a href="https://t.co/ugMXavAKo6">pic.twitter.com/ugMXavAKo6</a>—@NahlahAyed
Wiltshire police said a small number of emergency services personnel were examined immediately after the incident, and all but one had been released from hospital.
Skripal's wife died shortly after her arrival in Britain from cancer, the Guardian newspaper reported. His son died on a recent visit to Russia.
A white and yellow police forensics tent covered the bench where Skripal took ill.
With files from The Associated Press and CBC News