Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal critically ill after suspected poisoning at Salisbury hospital

 In U.S.
 It is a spy drama — and it is real. An aging Russian double agent is found slumped beside his daughter on a park bench in a quiet English town, both near death, apparently poisoned. Now Scotland Yard is on the case.

Britain’s counterterrorism police on Tuesday took over the investigation into what caused a balding, former Soviet-era spy, 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, to collapse on Sunday, leaving him staring into space, beside his comatose daughter, 33-year-old Yulia.

The pair remain in critical condition in a Salisbury hospital.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cautioned Tuesday it would be “wrong to prejudge” the fast-moving investigation, but warned if Russia was found to be responsible, the British government would respond “robustly.” Johnson told Parliament that Russia was now a “malign and disruptive force.”

The circumstances — two people, both in critical condition just minutes after they appear healthy and ambling past a security camera — immediately rang red bells in security circles.

Police stand guard on March 6, 2018, at a cordon in front of a police tent at the scene in Salisbury, southern England, where a man and a woman were found critically ill on a bench. (Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images)

The ex-spy Skripal was, according to neighbors, living a quiet life in Salisbury. He was a man with a past. He had enemies.

Skripal was jailed in Russia in 2006 after he was convicted of passing the names of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service.

In 2010, he was handed over to Britain as one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents living in the United States. 

The high-profile spy swap took place on an airport tarmac in Vienna — like something out of a Cold War John le Carré novel.

The strange doings in Salisbury also immediately called to mind the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in a London hospital bed three weeks after drinking tea laced with a mysterious radioactive substance. 

In 2016, a 300-page British government inquiry found that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “probably approved” the killing of Litvinenko, who was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and a former KGB operative.

In a statement Tuesday, Wiltshire Police said Skripal and his daughter were in intensive care, being treated for “suspected exposure to an unknown substance.”

The police added that a member of the emergency services who helped with the incident also remained in the hospital. Authorities were sweeping nearby sites — a restaurant and a pub — for forensic evidence.

“It’s a very unusual case, and the critical thing is to get to the bottom of its causes as quickly as possible,” said Mark Rowley, head of counterterrorism policing in the United Kingdom. 

“We’re doing all the things you would expect us to do,” he said. “We’re speaking to witnesses. We’re taking forensic samples at the scene. We’re doing toxicology work, and that will help us to get to an answer.”

The Russian president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Tuesday that the Kremlin knew nothing at all about the case and was ready to cooperate in the investigation if asked.

“We know that this tragic situation has happened, yet we have no information about its probable causes, what this man has been doing and what this is about,” Peskov said. 

He described any accusations against Russia as predictable and “not long in coming.”

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