A former Russian intelligence officer, who was convicted of spying on behalf of Britain, became critically ill after coming into contact with an unknown substance, the BBC reported Monday.
Sergei Skripal, 66, and a female companion were found slumped over on a bench at a shopping mall in Salisbury, England, on Sunday afternoon. Witnesses say it appeared Skripal and the woman had taken “something quite strong.”
But police response suggested authorities were concerned something other than drugs had affected the pair. Law enforcement cordoned off several locations in the city center, while an emergency response crew in full protective gear used hoses to decontaminate the street. Officers were also dispatched to Skripal’s residence as a part of the investigation.
Skripal has been living in Britian since 2010, when he was part of a prisoner exchange with Russia. Moscow’s military court convicted Skripal of “high treason in the form of espionage” in August 2006 — back when he was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence.
Neither Skripal nor the woman had visible injuries, Wiltshire police said in a statement Monday. Police did not publicly speculate on what might have caused the pair to fall unconscious.
“Because we are still at the very early stages of the investigation, we are unable to ascertain whether or not a crime has taken place,” Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Craig Holden said.
Public health authorities added specialists will form a “specially-convened group” to evaluate the Salisbury incident, the BBC reported.
Skripal resettled in Britain in 2010 as part of a high-profile spy swap — one of four Russians exchanged for 10 deep-cover agents Moscow planted in the U.S. Russia says MI6 paid Skripal $100,000 for information he had been passing since the 1990s, when he was a military intelligence officer.
Skripal’s unexplained illness is likely to draw comparisons to the case of another Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, who London-based Kremlin-linked agents poisoned to death in 2006.
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