LONDON (AP) — Britain must respond to evidence — not rumor — in the mysterious collapse of a former Russian spy and his daughter, who were found slumped on a public bench in southern England, the minister responsible for public safety said Wednesday.
Amid speculation about who is behind the suspected poisoning, Home Secretary Amber Rudd chaired a meeting Wednesday of the government’s emergency committee to consider a response. Counterterrorism police are investigating the case, which has left Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, hospitalized in critical condition.
“We need to keep a cool head and make sure we collect all the evidence we can,” Rudd said. “We need to make sure we respond not to rumor but to all the evidence that they collect. And then we need to decide what action to take.”
Her comments came as Moscow said the case was being used to fuel an “anti-Russian campaign” and further strain ties with Britain.
“What happened to Skripal has been immediately used to further incite anti-Russian campaign in Western media,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, was convicted in 2006 of spying for Britain and imprisoned. He was freed in 2010 as part of a widely publicized spy swap in which the U.S. agreed to hand over 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell found operating in America in return for four Russians convicted of spying for the West.
He and his daughter were found collapsed on a bench near a shopping mall Sunday in the town of Salisbury, 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of London. Police believe they were exposed to an unknown substance, and a British military research facility is thought to be conducting tests to determine what it is. Rudd said officials will share more information about the substance later Wednesday.
While police say they are keeping an open mind about the case, it has reminded Britain of the 2006 poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, which was blamed on the Russian state.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told lawmakers Tuesday that the government would act — possibly downgrading England’s participation in this year’s soccer World Cup in Russia — if Moscow is shown to have been involved in the Skripal case. Johnson warned British officials may not take part in the sport event “in the normal way,” but did not elaborate.
A British inquiry found that Russian agents poisoned Litvinenko by lacing his tea with radioactive polonium-210 and that the killing was probably approved by President Vladimir Putin. Russia has denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s death, and this week said it wasn’t involved in Skripal’s collapse.
Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, wrote Wednesday in the Times of London that her husband’s case made clear to Britain’s emergency services that they need to act quickly when “someone suddenly falls mysteriously ill.”
“I am happy my story has raised awareness about the potential danger posed by Moscow, and this could help to save somebody’s life,” she wrote in an opinion piece.
British counterterrorism specialists have taken control of Skripal’s case from local police trying to unravel the mystery of what happened. The matter has not been declared a terrorist incident.
Authorities have cordoned off a new scene in the case, securing Solstice Park, a business park in Amesbury near Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument and world heritage site. Amesbury is about nine miles from Salisbury.
Police also asked members of the public to come forward if they had visited Salisbury’s center, a pizza restaurant or a pub where the pair were last seen on Sunday.
Alastair Hay, a professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, said testing of the suspected substance causing the mystery illness would take some time.
“Individuals cannot provide unlimited amounts of blood for testing so investigations will be guided by the clinical team,” he said. “If the cause is more unusual, body fluids will require significant cleanup preparation before they can be put in an instrument. So this could take a day or several days.”