Russian Ex-Spy Poisoned With Nerve Agent, U.K. Police Say

(Bloomberg) -- A critically ill former Russian spy and his daughter were victims of a nerve agent, British police said, increasing the probability that their attack was the work of another state.

But Home Secretary Amber Rudd called for caution and said the facts needed to be clear before assigning blame. Her colleague Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been quick to point the finger at Russia. Rudd will address Parliament later.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench Sunday in Salisbury, southwest of London. They were “targeted specifically,” Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley told reporters in London late on Wednesday. Government experts have identified the "specific nerve agent used," which will help identify the source, the police said.

Skripal was convicted in 2006 of passing the identities of Russian agents in Europe to the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Russian authorities said payments totaling $100,000 were made into a Spanish bank account in return for his work for the U.K. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail, but in 2010 was pardoned and sent to Britain, in a swap deal involving agents who had been arrested in the U.S.

Alternative Theories

Rob Wainwright, the head of the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol, offered a heavy hint about where he thought responsibility for the attack lay in a comment on Twitter. “Of course we should exercise caution before jumping to any conclusions,” he wrote. “But, whoever is responsible -- and there are not 101 likely offenders -- this is an outrageous affront to our security in Europe and our way of life.”

The Times of London reported that intelligence officials are treating the poisoning as a state-sponsored assassination attempt, although there are also alternative theories including crime.

Russia has adopted an increasingly aggressive foreign policy in recent years, directed toward both its immediate neighbors and further afield. Britain has accused it of interfering in elections worldwide, and has stationed forces in countries on its border to deter military action.

Johnson told Parliament on Tuesday that Russia had become a “malign and disruptive force,” and that Britain would be likely to increase sanctions if evidence emerged that Russia was behind the attack.

The incident has uncomfortable echoes of the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian ex-spy who was murdered in 2006 after his tea was spiked with radioactive polonium. Johnson also made a connection with that case. In 2016, a judge ruled that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the murder. Russia dismissed the U.K. inquiry at the time as a “politicized farce.”

A police officer who was early on the scene is also in hospital, although Rudd said he was talking and engaging, so she was more "optimistic" about his condition.

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