A former Russian spy and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury last Sunday, about 145 kilometres from London. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, are in critical condition and are fighting for their lives in a local hospital, after reportedly being “poisoned” by a military-grade nerve agent.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May Tuesday accused Russia of being behind the attack, saying it was “highly likely” Moscow was responsible for either poisoning the duo or allowing the nerve agent to get into the hands of others. Speaking in UK’s Parliament, May was quoted by Reuters as saying, “Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
Who is Sergei Skripal?Skripal served as a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence. He worked as a double agent, passing secrets to Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency. He was convicted in Russia in 2006 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2010, however, he was one of the four prisoners Moscow swapped for spies with Britain. He was flown to the UK, where he has since been residing. Yulia Skripal is believed to have been visiting her father from Moscow, at the time of the attack.
What was the poison used on them?
It is believed that Novichok, also called “newcomer”, one of the deadliest weapons ever created, was used in the attack on the father-daughter duo. The chemical weapon was developed in the Soviet Union in 1970s and 1980s. It is believed to be five to ten times more lethal than other nerve agents, including VX or Sarin gases, although there are no reports of it being used prior to this attack.
Novichok “causes a slowing of the heart and restriction of the airways, leading to death by asphyxiation”, pharmacology expert Gary Stephens, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Russia and the United States once ran the largest chemical weapons programmes in the world. While Russia has destroyed its stockpile, the US is currently in the final stages of doing the same. The US, at one point, believed Russia had a secrets weapons programme, and had developed weapons — like Novichok — that were not declared when the latter joined the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It also believed Russia was in possession of thousands of tonnes of weaponised Novichok varieties, reports Reuters.
Is this why it is believed Russia is behind the attack?
The use of Novichok, developed by Russia, is the reason for May targetting Moscow. The US has backed Britain’s assessment of the attack, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying the country has “full confidence” in the fact that Russia was likely responsible for the attack. In a statement, he said, “We agree that those responsible — both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it — must face appropriately serious consequences.”
Has Russia responded?
Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked about the attack, reportedly said British officials should first “get to the bottom of things”. Meanwhile, a Kremlin spokesperson said the country had nothing to do with the attack, as Skripal worked for British intelligence and the attack happened on British soil.
“The mentioned Russian citizen worked for one of the British intelligence services, the incident occurred in Great Britain. This is not a matter for the Russian government,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Was anyone else affected in the attack?
The first one to attend to the Skripals was a British policeman, who was also affected after coming into contact with the nerve agent. While his condition is serious, he is stable.
The duo is said to have dined at a pub in Salisbury called Zizzi restaurant or the Mill pub. The site is currently sealed. Officials have asked anyone who visited the pub on the day of the attack to wash their clothes off of any trace of the chemical.
“This is about a very, very small risk of repetitive contact for any traces of contamination that people may have taken out,” Public Health England’s deputy medical director Jenny Harries said, reported Reuters. “In risk terms one or two days is not what we are concerned about, what we are worrying about is whether there could be an ongoing risk that could build over the future.”
Has this happened in the past?
Sunday’s attack comes years after Britain blamed Russia for the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent. He was found dead in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. Despite Kremlin repeatedly denying involvement in the incident, relations between Britain and Russia have been strained ever since.
(With inputs from agencies)