Russian spy latest: Home Secretary in emergency Cobra meeting as chemical warfare troops descend on Salisbury

Meeting to be held in Whitehall as military specialists assist in Salisbury and minister says UK will discuss Sergei Skripal poisoning with Nato allies

Military convoy for poisoned spy in Salisbury has bystander call it like something out of X-Files

The Home Secretary is to chair an emergency Cobra meeting as nearly 200 troops including chemical warfare specialists are on the streets of Salisbury helping investigate and clean up after the suspected nerve agent attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

With the Russian embassy accusing the British of propaganda and “following the Litvinenko script” in the Skripal investigation, one UK Government minister has revealed Britain will be discussing the case with its Nato allies.

Amber Rudd will chair a meeting of the Government's Cobra committee in Whitehall at 3pm, while around 180 troops, including Royal Marines, RAF Regiment troops and chemical warfare specialists, will be in Salisbury.

Those deployed include personnel from the Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre and bomb disposal experts from the 29 Ordnance Group, as well as the Falcon Squadron of the Royal Tank Regiment, who use mobile laboratories for tests and decontamination.

They were called in after investigators from Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism unit said they needed specialist assistance.

A convoy of military vehicles was seen rolling into Salisbury, and Mr Skripal’s car, an ambulance, air-ambulance helicopter and a police car were seen being covered by people wearing hazmat suits before being driven away on military lorries.

Sergei Skripal: Forensic police inspect cemetery in Salisbury in connection with Russian spy poisoning case

Officers in protective gear were also seen in Salisbury’s London Road cemetery, placing a blue forensic tent over a memorial stone for the former spy’s son, Alexander, and nearby grave of his wife Liudmila.

The troops from specialist chemical and biological warfare units were thought to have been investigating the graves because they were visited by the 66-year-old ex-spy and his 33-year-old daughter before they fell critically ill on Sunday.

Liudmila and Alexander Skripal were both thought to have died of natural illnesses but the cause of their deaths have now come under renewed focus.

Alexander Skripal is thought to have died of liver failure while on holiday in St Petersburg in 2017, and some reports have suggested family members thought his death was suspicious.

Liudmila, who moved to England with her husband after he was released in a Cold War-style prisoner swap, is thought to have died of cancer.

Apparent fears of chemical contamination have also seen Mr Skripal's home cordoned off while detectives attempt to pin down the origins of the substance used to incapacitate him.

British ministers have urged caution over apportioning blame until the facts become clear, but the defence minister Tobias Ellwood has revealed the UK will be discussing the case with its Nato allies.

Mr Ellwood said the military's presence reflected the "seriousness" of the situation, adding: "We mustn't get ahead of ourselves but we must have a robust response and it's something that we'll be discussing with our Nato partners and with the forthcoming summit in Brussels in July.

"Some big questions arise as to how do you stand up to a clandestine and sinister attack deliberately done to play havoc in our society?"

Russia has vehemently denied involvement in the nerve agent attack and accused British politicians of engaging in “pure propaganda”.

Referencing the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by radioactive polonium in an operation found by a British inquiry to have been “probably approved” by Vladimir Putin, a tweet from the Russian Embassy in London claimed: “Investigation of Sergei Skripal case follows the Litvinenko script: most info to be classified, Russia to get no access to investigation files and no opportunity to assess its credibility.”

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov insisted: “We haven’t heard a single fact, we only watch reportages on TV where our colleagues [British politicians] say with pathos, with serious faces, that if this was done by Russia then the response will be such that Russia will remember forever.

“This is dishonest, this is pure propaganda, pure fanning of hysterics and hysteria.”

Mr Skripal and his daughter remain in a “very serious” condition in intensive care.

Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was part of the initial response by authorities, is also in a serious condition, but conscious and talking from his hospital bed.

He was among the first officers sent to the bench where Yulia and Sergei Skripal were found unconscious on Sunday afternoon, and is then thought to have visited the ex-spy’s suburban home.

Officials have described the nerve agent used, which affected a total of 21 people, as “very rare” but investigators have not named the precise chemical used.

Security officials say the specific chemical used would have been difficult to obtain and could only have come from a state run or state-licensed laboratory.

Chemical weapons experts told The Independent the nerve agent could have been administered in a variety of ways, including in food or drink, or in the form of a spray or liquid.

Dr Patricia Lewis, research director for International Security at Chatham House, said nerve agents act extremely rapidly if inhaled – possibly killing people within minutes – and more slowly if absorbed through the skin.

It is thought that investigators are examining the possibility that Mr Skripal was targeted at his home on the edge of Salisbury. Sources told The Independent a package containing the nerve agent may have been delivered to the property and opened in the presence of his daughter.

Lord Blair, who was the Metropolitan Police Commissioner when Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated, said it was significant that DS Bailey had visited the house.

Lord Blair said: “The officer, and I’m very sorry that he has been injured, has actually been to the house, whereas there was a doctor who looked after the patients in the open who hasn’t been affected at all.

“So there may be some clues floating around in here.”

Forensic tests have also been carried out at a branch of the Zizzi restaurant chain and The Mill pub in Salisbury, where witnesses say Mr Skripal began to behave in an agitated manner following lunch with his daughter.

They arrived in Salisbury for lunch at around 1.30pm on Sunday and were found unconscious on a bench at around 4.15pm – under three hours later.

A witness who saw the pair in The Mill said Mr Skripal was behaving “erratically” and shouting loudly at one point – behaviour that could be linked to the onset of his symptoms.

The pair were caught on CCTV walking down an alley near where they fell unconscious on a bench at 4.08pm on Sunday, minutes before emergency services were called.

A passing doctor described Ms Skripal “vomiting and fitting” after losing control of her bodily functions.

The doctor moved Ms Skripal into the recovery position and opened her airway, as others tended to her father.

All the symptoms are consistent with nerve agents, which vary in strength according to type, concentration and how they are administered.

Security officials say that 66-year-old Mr Skripal was no longer an active MI6 asset, but he may have become a target by attempting to “freelance” for private intelligence companies run by former spies.

The developments come as further details emerged of Mr Skripal’s career before and after he was jailed by the Russian authorities in 2006 for passing secrets to the British.

The BBC reported that Mr Skripal was one of the first Russian troops into Afghanistan during the 1979 invasion, when he was serving with the elite Soviet airborne troop, the Desantniki.

The BBC said that by that time Mr Skripal was already married, to Liudmila, who had been his teenage sweetheart when he was growing up in Kaliningrad.

Luidmila gave birth to the couple’s first child, Alexander – known to the family as Sasha – in 1974.

After Afghanistan, Mr Skripal graduated from the Diplomatic Military Academy in Moscow, where, it seems, he was talent spotted by the GRU, Russia's military intelligence.

Mr Skripal, who would eventually rise to the rank of colonel, was reported to have begun his GRU career in the intelligence organisation’s First Directorate, which focused on spying in Europe.

He is thought to have had two postings in Europe, working under cover while posing as a diplomat.

He is thought to have been approached by the British during his second posting, in the 1990s, agreeing to become a double agent.

About 18 years ago, he left the GRU. The BBC quoted friends as saying Mr Skripal told them he had become fed up with the corruption inside the organisation.

In December 2004, however, Mr Skripal was arrested by the Russian authorities, with TV cameras on hand to cover every moment.

The BBC reported that there were claims that as he was arrested, Mr Skripal’s shoulder was deliberately wrenched from his socket by officers of Russia’s security service (FSB).

But despite now being more than 50 years old, the BBC reported, Mr Skripal proved able to look after himself both on remand and in a labour camp in Mordovia.

While on remand in a Moscow jail, the BBC said, Mr Skripal, a former Soviet army championship boxer, was able to deal effectively with a couple of criminals whom he suspected of having been paid to give him a hard time.

In the labour camp, it was said, Mr Skripal could take the blows from guards, and few other inmates dared challenge him.

Mr Skripal, however, reportedly felt guilty that because of his spying, his son lost his job in Russia. Sasha’s marriage is also thought to have disintegrated under the pressure of his father being a convicted of “treason” and publicly mocked as “the spy with the Louis Vuitton bag”.

Then, in July 2017, Sasha died while on holiday with a girlfriend in St Petersburg. Relatives told the BBC he was rushed to hospital and died of sudden liver failure, in what they believe may have been suspicious circumstances.

It is understood that Sasha was cremated in Russia, with his ashes being flown to Salisbury to lie in the London Road cemetery alongside the grave of his mother, who had died in October 2012, after being diagnosed with cancer in 2011.

Both graves are now being examined by British investigators in hazmat suits.

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