SALISBURY, ENGLAND (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Britain threatened on Tuesday (March 6) to pull out of the football World Cup in Russia as well as impose more sanctions if Moscow was shown to be behind the mysterious illness that struck down a Russian former double agent.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson named Sergei Skripal, once a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service convicted of betraying dozens of spies to British intelligence, 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 the British parliament.
“It is clear that Russia, I’m afraid, is now in many respects a malign and disruptive force, and the UK 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 Britain could attend the World Cup in Russia in June and July.
England is the only British national team to have qualified for the tournament, which is held every four years.
Johnson also raised the prospect of more sanctions. "Should evidence emerge that shows state responsibility, then Her Majesty's government will respond appropriately and robustly," Johnson said.
"It may very well be that we are forced to look again at our sanctions regime and other measures that we may seek to put in place."
Britain’s counter terrorism police will lead the investigation, police said on Tuesday.
“Due to the unusual circumstances, it has been decided that the Counter Terrorism Policing network will lead the investigation as it has the specialist expertise to do so,” London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement. “It has not been declared a terrorist incident and at this stage we are keeping an open mind as to what happened.”
Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, told journalists that Moscow is prepared to help with the investigation. "We see this tragic situation but we don't have information on what could have led to this, what he was engaged in," he said.
Skripal, 66, was granted asylum in the UK in 2010 after a spy-swap with Russia, according to a person familiar with the case. He and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious at a shopping mall and doctors and toxicologists are examining what made the pair so ill, with results expected Tuesday.
"The pair, who we believe are known to each other, did not have any visible injuries and were taken to Salisbury District Hospital," Wiltshire police said in a statement.
"They are currently being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance. Both remain in a critical condition in intensive care."
"A small number" of emergency service workers were assessed after the incident and all but one have been released from hospital, police said.
Wiltshire police declared a major incident and said a number of areas of the city were cordoned off. They closed a Zizzi Italian restaurant and the Bishop's Mill pub as part of the investigation.
Workers in respirators and hazardous material suits searched bins in the shopping Mal and officers from London's Metropolitan Police, which heads nationwide counter-terrorism work, are assisting in the investigation.
Freya Church, an eyewitness, told the BBC she saw the pair sitting on a bench: "She was sort of leant in on him, it looked like she had passed out maybe," she said. "He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky. They looked so out of it I thought even if I did step in I wasn't sure how I could help."
Skripal was jailed in Russia for 13 years in 2006 after being convicted of passing the identities of Russian agents in Europe to the UK's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, the person said. Russian authorities said payments totalling US$100,000 were made into a Spanish bank account in return for his work for the UK.
The incident has uncomfortable echoes of the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian ex-spy who was murdered in 2006 after having his tea spiked with radioactive polonium. In 2016 a judge ruled that President Vladimir Putin probably approved the murder.
Russia dismissed the UK inquiry at the time as a "politicised farce."
Andrei Lugovoi, a suspect in Litvinenko murder, told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy that Russia had nothing to do with the case. Russia hasn't hunted down its exiles since the 1940s, he added.
"The UK needs to investigate within its own borders because Russia couldn't have anything to do with this," Lugovoi said. "Skripal was convicted for treason and espionage, he spent six years in a prison colony and was pardoned by the Russian president and sent of his own accord by Russian authorities to the UK, where he was swapped for our sleeper agents who were arrested in the US. His case was closed as soon as he was swapped."