British authorities are treating the collapse and hospitalization of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter as an attempted murder by a nerve agent, after the pair were found unconscious outside a mall in southern England on Sunday.
Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found slumped over on a bench outside the shopping centre in Salisbury. The pair remain in hospital in life-threatening condition.
On Wednesday, authorities confirmed a nerve agent was used and that Skripal and his daughter were specifically targeted.
“Having established that they were exposed to a nerve agent we are now treating this as a major incident involving an attempted murder by the administration of a nerve agent,” Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of Counter Terrorism Policing, said at a news conference. “Two people remain in hospital in a critical condition. A police officer who was among the first responders also remains in hospital in a serious condition and is continuing to receive intensive care.”
WATCH: British police say nerve agent poisoned Russian ex-spy, daughter
Authorities said they have identified the specific nerve agent used in the alleged attempted murders, but will not disclose the specific substance due to the ongoing investigation.
Here’s what we know about Sergei Skripal and British-Russia espionage history.
Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s GRU (formerly the Red Army) military intelligence service. In 2006, he was convicted of spying for Britain and jailed in Russia. He was freed in 2010 as part of a widely publicized spy swap in which the U.S. agreed to hand over 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell found operating in America in return for four Russians convicted of spying for the West.
On the Russian side of double-agents, Soviet double agent George Blake is said to have betrayed hundreds of agents to Russia’s KGB, for which he started working in the 1950s.
One of his first major scoops was the exposure of a secret tunnel to spy on Soviet communications in East Berlin. He also claimed to have betrayed all of the hundreds of agents operating for the British in Germany.
Blake confessed after being arrested in London and was sentenced to 42 years in prison, breaking out in 1966 and fleeing to Russia where he was celebrated as a hero.
In 1985 Moscow and London engaged in a furious six-day exchange of spy expulsions, declaring a draw after 31 on each side had been sent packing. This followed the defection to Britain of the KGB’s London station chief, Oleg Gordievsky.
Eleven British diplomats and journalists were expelled from the Soviet Union in 1989 in retaliation for London throwing out 11 alleged Soviet spies.
Vladimir Putin and traitor spies
Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned his former agents in the past about betraying the country. As the Business Insider U.K. points out, Putin made a direct threat to foreign agents during a televised interview, shortly after Skripal was freed and granted asylum in the U.K.
“Traitors will kick the bucket,” said. “Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces silver they were given, they will choke on them.”
When Skripal was a double agent, he apparently demanded about $100,000 for Russian intelligence.
Deaths of exiled Russians
In 2006, former spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in Britain. A British inquiry into his death found that Russian agents poisoned him by lacing his tea with radioactive polonium-210 and that the killing was probably approved by Putin.
The former FSB agent fled Russia in 1999 after revealing an alleged plot by the agency to kill tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a supporter-turned-foe of Putin. Berezovsky was later found hanged in a bathroom of his home.
According to the BBC, the Russian embassy in London denied this week the country was involved in the Skripal incident.
“Media reports create an impression of a planned operation by the Russian special services, which is completely untrue,” the embassy said.
–with files from Agence France-Presse, Associated Press