London (AFP) – British police extended their search for those behind a nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent as speculation mounted Friday about how London could respond if a state actor were to blame.
Police extended the cordon around the modest suburban home of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, the quiet city in southwestern England where he and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a bench on Sunday.
The pair remain unconscious in a critical but stable condition, while Nick Bailey, one of the first police officers on the scene, is now sitting up and talking after initially being admitted to intensive care.
With police also hurt in the attack, pressure is intensifying on Prime Minister Theresa May to find and punish the culprits.
The involvement of “a British citizen, especially a policeman, requires the immediate and strong involvement of the British authorities,” Chatham House analyst Mathieu Boulegue told AFP.
Around 21 people have been treated, according to Kier Pritchard, chief constable for Wiltshire Police.
“A number of those have been through the hospital treatment process, they’re having blood tests, they’re having treatment in terms of support and advice,” he added.
Authorities are racing to find the source of the nerve agent used against 66-year-old Skripal, who came to Britain in 2010 as part of a spy swap, as politicians warned it bore the hallmarks of an attack by Russia.
Interior minister Amber Rudd called the attack “outrageous” but urged people on Friday to “give the police the space they need to really go through the area carefully, to do their investigation.”
– ‘Propaganda’ –
In response to questions over Russia’s possible involvement, May has said that “if action needs to be taken then the government will do that”.
Possible responses include the expulsion of some of Russia’s 58 diplomats, some kind of boycott of the 2018 football World Cup or an increased British military presence in Eastern Europe.
Foreign minister Boris Johnson floated the deepening of sanctions against Russian officials, but Britain would have to convince its international partners.
Moscow has reacted angrily to the accusations, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday dismissing it as baseless “propaganda” aimed at
On Thursday, however, Russian state TV presenter Kirill Kleimyonov appeared to dish out a veiled warning, saying: “Don’t choose England as your future country of residence… whether you are a professional traitor to the motherland or whether you hate your country in your spare time.”
Analyst Boulegue said that it would be “extremely difficult” to pinpoint who committed the attack, and that the response could be a lot more complicated if it turned out that internal factions were responsible.
– A deadly gift? –
“It is possible that it is related to the elections in Russia or that it is part of a battle between the elites within the security services, to send messages either to the English or to the Russian elites,” he said.
National counter-terrorism police have taken over the case, confirming that a nerve agent was used and saying they were treating the attack as attempted murder.
Police have cordoned off the bench where the pair were found, as well as an Italian restaurant and a pub they visited before their collapse.
The also sealed off the grave of Skripal’s wife, Liudmila, who died in 2012 from cancer, as well as the memorial stone of his son, Alexander, who was cremated last year after reportedly dying of liver problems.
The Times said police were probing whether Skripal’s daughter, who arrived in Britain from Moscow last week, may have inadvertently brought in the nerve agent as a gift.
Skripal was a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who was jailed in his country for betraying agents to Britain’s MI6 secret service.
He was pardoned in 2010 before being flown to Britain as part of a high-profile spy swap involving Russia and the United States.