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The U.K. is gripped by a bizarre Russian spy mystery

A former Russian double-agent and his daughter were both poisoned by an 'unknown substance.'

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASSTASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASSTASS via Getty Images)

The town of Salisbury in Wiltshire, south-west England is normally a quiet place to be. But on Monday, it suddenly became the focus of a massive police investigation when a former Russian spy and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped outside a shopping center after being exposed to an “unknown substance”.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia are currently critically ill in hospital. “When she was on the floor, her eyes were just completely white,” witness Jamie Paine told CBS News. “They were wide open but just white…[she was] frothing at the mouth. Then the man went stiff. His arms stopped moving, but he’s still looking straight.”

Just what the pair were poisoned with remains a mystery, however a “major incident” was declared at the Salisbury hospital when they arrived. According to the Guardian, radiation and toxicology experts were brought in, and health officials in spaceman-like hazmat suits were seen examining the crime scene. On Tuesday, counter-terror police said they would be taking over the investigation due to its “unusual circumstances.”

Sergei Skripal was a former Russian army colonel who served in Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. In 2006 he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for spying for Britain’s MI6, with Russian prosecutors alleging he’d been paid $100,000 to supply information since the 1990s. In 2010, however, he was pardoned by the Kremlin and given to the West as part of a spy-swap for “sleeper” agents planted in the US by Moscow. According to the Times, Sergei Skripal’s son, also Sergei, died last year in Russian of an “unknown illness.”

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Police were at pains to say that they were still at the very early stages of the investigation, but the incident is already drawing comparisons to the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who defected to Britain and become highly-critical of the Kremlin, died a slow, painful death after he drank tea containing radioactive material at a hotel bar in London. A 2016 public inquiry concluded that he had been killed by Russian intelligence on the orders of Vladimir Putin.

There have been several other high-profile Russian deaths on British soil as well, including whistleblowers and notable enemies of the Kremlin. Last June an investigation by BuzzfeedNews revealed that there were 14 deaths on British soil that were linked by US intelligence to Russia.

The suspicious deaths weren’t limited to the UK either. In 2015 Mikhail Lesin, the creator of TV channel Russia Today, was found dead in a DC hotel from an “undetermined” cause — despite being found with blunt-force injuries to his head and other parts of his body.

The poisoning in Wiltshire has already been discussed in Parliament, and attention has already focused in on Russia. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, called Russia a “malign and destructive force” and said that if it turns out the Kremlin was involved a “serious conversation about engagement with Russia” would need to be had, including pulling dignitaries out of visiting Russia for the Wold Cup this summer.