Sergei Skripal: Former double agent may have been poisoned with nerve agent over 'freelance' spying, sources say

DS Nick Bailey praised as hero after being made seriously ill while helping victims 

Kim Sengupta,Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 08 March 2018 22:29 GMT
Sergei Skripal: What we know so far

The Russian double agent poisoned in Salisbury may have become a target after using his contacts in the intelligence community to work for private security firms, investigators believe.

Sergei Skripal could have come to the attention of certain people in Russia by attempting to “freelance” for companies run by former MI5, MI6 and GCHQ spies, security sources say.

Mr Skripal, who remains in hospital in a critical condition alongside his daughter, Yulia, had kept in touch with members of the intelligence community, past and present. Investigators are examining whether he was using those contacts for work.

Russian exile claims Sergei Skripal was still in contact with Russian embassy when they met

There are large numbers of private security firms in the UK which are actively involved, for commercial as well as state clients, in researching the activities of powerful individuals with links to the Kremlin power structure.

Sources close to Orbis, the business intelligence firm run by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, who was behind a dossier of compromising allegations against Donald Trump, said Mr Skripal did not contribute to the file. But they could not say whether Mr Skripal was involved in different investigations into the US President for other interested parties.

The developments came as Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey was named as the police officer who was also admitted to hospital after exposure to the nerve agent. A total of 21 people were affected by the poison, police said last night.

Security officials told The Independent that 66-year-old Mr Skripal was no longer an active MI6 asset and was not regarded as being under threat, meaning he was not given a new identity and lived openly under his own name.

Investigators are looking at the possibility that the attackers may have flown into Britain to carry out their mission and then left, possibly individually, afterwards. It is possible, say security sources, that the attack was carried out by ‘sleeper’ agents, but this is believed to be an unlikely scenario.

Skripal during his trial in Moscow, 2006 (AP)

The Home Secretary told the House of Commons both Mr Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter remain unconscious, in a critical but stable condition.

Amber Rudd said the nerve agent used was “very rare” but declined to name the precise chemical and emphasised that the risk to the public was low.

21 people treated as a result of poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Investigators are considering the possibility that instead of an overtly physical assault, a package containing the nerve agent may have been delivered to Mr Skripal and opened it in the presence of his daughter, exposing them both.

Forensic tests are focusing on his home in Salisbury, 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.

“Samples from the victims have been tested by experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down,” Ms Rudd said, referring to the secretive military facility where nerve agents have been developed and tested over decades of controversial research.

“The use of a nerve agent on UK soil is a brazen and reckless act. This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way.”

She said DS Bailey was “conscious, talking and engaging” from his bed at Salisbury District Hospital, praising his “selfless” actions.

Kier Pritchard, the temporary Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police, said the officer should be “back on his feet and back at work very soon”.

After visiting DS Bailey in the intensive care unit, where his wife was by his bedside, the officer said: “I’ve known Nick for many years, he’s a great character, he’s a huge presence in Wiltshire Police – well liked, well loved, a massively dedicated officer.

DS Nick Bailey is in hospital after being poisoned by the nerve agent (Wiltshire Police)

“He’s well, he’s sat up. He is not the Nick that I know but of course he’s receiving a high level of treatment.”

DS Bailey, who joined Wiltshire Police in 2002, was given a formal commendation in 2016 for his work putting a serial rapist who targeted victims over four decades behind bars.

Temporary Chief Constable Pritchard said he was “massively proud” of the officer and all his staff for their response, which will be the subject of a church service at St Thomas’s, in Salisbury city centre next month.

“We’ve had multiple officers involved, there’s been a total of 21 people including the main two index patients… a number of those have been through the hospital treatment process,” the officer added.

“They’re having blood tests, they’ve having treatment, support and advice provided.”

The investigation continued to widen on Thursday as officers raced to establish how Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, and who by.

New police cordons were erected around the gravestone of Mr Skripal’s wife Liudmila, who was buried in 2012, and the memorial stone of his son, Alexander, who was cremated last year.

They are located at separate sites in the London Road Cemetery with each guarded by a police officer.

Counter-terror police are believed to be looking into the deaths, as well as that of Mr Skripal’s elder brother Valeri, a former paratrooper in Russian forces who died two years ago after sudden weight loss.

The cause of 59-year-old Ms Skripal’s death was recorded as endometrial cancer and Alexander, 44, was said to have suffered liver failure while on holiday.

Mr Skripal’s wife passed away in the UK but Alexander and Valeri died in Russia and any fresh probe into the circumstances will need the cooperation of the authorities in Moscow.

Tom Tugdenhat, a Conservative MP, claimed “it wasn’t just Mr Skripal that was [attempted to be] murdered, it looks likely that his wife was murdered a year or so ago, his son was murdered in 2007 and now his daughter too”.

Security sources, however cautioned against making assumptions before investigations have been carried out.

Suspicion has turned to the Russian government, which jailed Mr Skripal for “treason” in 2006, or former spies he betrayed while working for MI6 during his time as a colonel in the GRU military intelligence service.

Theresa May declined to say whether she held Russia responsible for the attack, in the wake of high-level Cobra and National Security Council meetings.

“We need to let the police have the space and time to conduct their investigating so that we get the best possible evidence of what has happened in this particular case,” the Prime Minister said.

“Of course if action needs to be taken then the Government will do that. We’ll do that properly, at the right time, and on the basis on the best evidence.”

Yulia Skripal was found unconscious next to her father (Facebook)

Mr Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a nearby bench in The Maltings shopping centre at around 4.15pm, where a passing doctor described Yulia “vomiting and fitting” after losing control of her bodily functions.

The woman, who asked not to be named, told the BBC she moved Ms Skripal into the recovery position and opened her airway, as others tended to her father.

The nerve agent used would have been difficult to obtain and could have only been manufactured in a specialist laboratory, according to a Whitehall official with knowledge of the investigation.

The substance would, it is claimed, have been relatively easy to make but the relative rarity of the material and the damage it can cause points towards the production taking place in state controlled facilities and tracing it could point towards those who wanted Mr Skripal murdered.

Preliminary tests do not indicate that the substance used was sarin, which has been used in a Tokyo subway attack and the Syrian civil war, or deadly VX, which was developed at Porton Down and used to kill the brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Malaysia last year.

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