British authorities have revealed that the substance used to poison a former Russian double agent and his daughter was a nerve agent. The U.K.’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, called the attack a “brazen and reckless act.” She added that the “government will act without hesitation as the facts become clearer.”
Former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned on March 4 near a shopping center in Salisbury, England. Skripal, a former Russian army colonel, had defected, and was supplying information to MI6 until he was discovered and arrested by the Russians in 2006. He moved to the United Kingdom after a high-profile spy swap in 2010 involving the United States. The Telegraph reported that Col. Skripal “had recently gone to police claiming he was fearing for his life.”
Nerve agents are chemical weapons designed specifically to attack and shut down the human body’s nervous system. They are highly lethal and difficult to manufacture. Because of this, they have to be made in specialized facilities, which often keeps them out of reach of most criminals, gangs, and even terrorist groups.
The head of the U.K.’s Counter Terrorism Policing, Mark Rowley, said in a press conference on March 7 that “this is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder, by administration of a nerve agent.” He also confirmed that “we believe that the two people who became unwell were targeted specifically.”
A police officer responding to the scene was also affected by the nerve agent and is currently in “a serious condition” in the hospital, according to Rowley. Two additional police officers were treated for “minor symptoms” and then “given the all clear,” according to the BBC.
Even though this case bears similarities to the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 (a case that was ruled as “probably” approved by the Russian government), Rudd has urged caution. “This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way," Rudd said. “People are right to want to know who to hold to account. But if we are to be rigorous in this investigation we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry on their investigation.”
The Russian embassy in the U.K. has been tweeting about the incident, insisting that Skripal be referred to as a “British spy” rather than a Russian one, and accusing the U.K. government of covering up the details of similar incidents in the past. However, the embassy's twitter and press office have not referenced that Skripal was a Russian military intelligence officer before working for MI6.