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Moscow denies knowledge of incident in Salisbury

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Police in the southwest of England reported that two people are in critical condition and are being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance.
USA TODAY

LONDON — The Kremlin said Tuesday that it has no information about what led to the unexplained collapse of a former Russian agent convicted of spying for Britain, but said it was prepared to help with a case that has baffled investigators. 

Sergei Skripal, 66, an ex-Russian military intelligence colonel, and an unidentified 33-year-old woman who was with him, were found unconscious Sunday on a bench in Salisbury, a town in England about 90 miles west of London. Police said they had been exposed to an “unknown substance.”

Both are in critical condition in intensive care.

Skripal was jailed in 2006 in Russia after he confessed to being recruited by British intelligence and supplying information about Russian agents. He was freed in 2010 as part of a U.S.-Russian spy swap and moved to Britain.

The circumstances surrounding Sunday’s incident were still unclear and police urged the public not to speculate, but the incident is reminiscent of the 2006 poisoning death of another former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, after he was exposed to a rare radioactive isotope, polonium-210. An official British inquiry concluded in 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the assassination.

Litvinenko was an outspoken critic of Putin who sought asylum in Britain after he assisted British intelligence and Spanish corruption investigators.

British investigators traced his poisoning to two Russians accused of pouring the radioactive substance into Litvinenko’s tea in a posh London hotel. The Kremlin adamantly denies the accusation that it was involved in his death.

On Tuesday, Dimitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Skripal’s case was a “tragic situation but we don’t have information on what could have led to this.” He said Britain had not requested its help but “Moscow is always ready to cooperate.”

Mark Rowley, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, told BBC radio that police and intelligence officers from his agency were speaking to witnesses, taking forensic samples at the scene and doing toxicology work to try to get to answers. 

“We have to remember: Russian exiles aren’t immortal, they do all die and there can be a tendency to conspiracy theories. But likewise we have to be alive to the fact of state threats,” Rowley said, before referring to the murder of Litvinenko.

Dorell reported from Washington, D.C. 

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