UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons on Thursday that enormous resources were being expended to figure out who was behind an attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter. Rudd called the use of a chemical nerve agent on British soil a "brazen and reckless" act that would be answered with all possible force.
"This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way," said Rudd of the attack on 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, 33.
The two were found collapsed on a bench in the city of Salisbury and remain in hospital in stable but critical condition — as does the policeman who found them, who was also exposed to the substance. Rudd said the police officer was conscious and talking.
Police said on Thursday about 21 people had taken blood tests and been given support and hospital advice. Just Skripal, his daughter, Yulia, and the police officer remain in hospital.
'Not a kitchen sink job'
Investigators are now trying to discern the exact composition of the chemical, which is so rare and complicated to make that it has led to speculation that state actors may have been involved.
"This is not a kitchen sink job," Richard Guthrie, a chemical weapons expert at the research organization CBW events, told The Associated Press. He added that the highly public nature of the attack seemed to be "an expression of power" and an attempt to send a message.
Production of chemical agents is banned under a UN accord signed by all member states apart from Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan. While Guthrie said a nerve agent does not necessarily have to be produced by a government, it requires a highly sophisticated lab and an expert chemist.
Guthrie said Moscow was "obviously a clear candidate" to have perpetrated the attack, but added the caveat that "it's also possible that there could be some troublemaker out there who wants to make it look like it was Russia."
Skripal: Double agent freed by Moscow
Authorities have determined, however, that the chemical agent is not VX — the compound that killed Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in minutes in February 2017.
Skripal was arrested in 2006 by Moscow for "high treason" after it emerged he may have turned into a double agent and sold state secrets to Britain. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but, in a rare move, the Kremlin agreed to a prisoner swap – trading Skripal and three others charged with espionage in exchange for the United States releasing 10 Russians.
Skripal has been living in Salisbury in the south of England since 2010. Valery Morozov, a Russian exile, told the British press that Skripal had not completely given up espionage and did work in cybersecurity.
The Porton Down science park just outside Salisbury is home to two UK government facilities: a 7,000-acre site of the Ministry of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), which is one of the country's most secretive military research facilities, and a site of Public Health England.
The Ministry of Defence also owns 390 square kilometers (150 square miles) of Salisbury Plain, and it is the largest military training area in the UK. In December 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was reported in the British press as saying British troops training on Salisbury Plain "have started to use Russian-made tanks and uniforms of the Russian military to designate the enemy."
Shoigu was reported to have claimed, "The last time this training method was used was by Nazi Germany during the Second World War."
es,jm/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)