A former Russian spy who was given refuge in the UK after being convicted of spying for Britain is fighting for his life after being exposed to an unknown substance.
Sergei Skripal, 66, who was responsible for revealing the identities of numerous secret agents threatening the West, and a woman were found slumped on a bench in a busy shopping center in Salisbury on Sunday.
He is critically ill along with the woman, 33, after they were both found at The Maltings shopping center in a case that immediately drew parallels to the poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko.
They were being treated for ‘suspected exposure to an unknown substance’, police said after emergency workers in hazmat suits were seen decontaminating the area where they were found.
Skripal, a former colonel of Russia’s military intelligence nicknamed ‘the spy with the Louis Vuitton bag’, was convicted in Russia in 2006 on charges of espionage for Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency.
He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but was given refuge in the UK as part of a historic spy swap between the United States and Russia eight years ago.
He was among four other convicts who were given pardons and one of two sent to Britain in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian ‘sleeper’ agents, including Anna Chapman as part of a deal that was said at the time to be the largest spy swap since the Cold War.
Neighbours at Skripal’s home in Salisbury say police arrived at the property at around 5pm on Sunday and have remained stationed there since.
They described him as friendly and said he had lost his wife in recent years.
Today, an eyewitness said Skripal and the younger woman seemed ‘out of it’ after she came across the pair slumped on the bench.
‘On the bench there was a couple, an older guy and a younger girl. She was sort of leaned in on him. It looked like she had passed out, maybe,’ Freya Church said.
‘He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky,’ she said.
‘I felt anxious, I felt like I should step in, but to be honest they looked so out of it that I thought even if I did step in, I wasn’t sure how I could help.
‘So I just left them. But it looked like they’d been taking something quite strong.’
Wiltshire Police said because the investigation was in the early stages officers are ‘unable to ascertain’ whether the pair have been victims of a crime and have reassured people there is no risk to the wider public.
The circumstances surrounding Monday’s incident were still murky, but the case had immediate resonance in Britain – former Russian agent Alexander Litvenko died after drinking radioactive tea in a swanky London hotel.
The ex-KGB agent died after two agents slipped radioactive polonium 210 into his tea pot at a Mayfair hotel in 2006.