Bemusement in Salisbury as Russian ex-spy drama unfolds

As the UK and Russia trade Cold War-era barbs over the poison attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal, how are locals at the scene of the crime coping with the public exposure? Samira Shackle reports from Salisbury.

Salisbury, a quiet city in the southwestern English county of Wiltshire was, until recently, best known for its medieval cathedral. That changed last week, with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. It is thought that they were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent as they sat on a bench in the middle of the town.

The international political drama has stepped up this week, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying the attack "clearly came from Russia" and UK Prime Minister Theresa May giving Moscow until midnight on Tuesday to respond after saying it was "highly likely" that Russia was behind the attack.

The shopping center where the poisoning took place is a web of police cordons, with officers standing guard to ensure they are not breached. The park where the two were found slumped over has been closed completely, and the bench they were sitting on covered with a protective tent. The police detective who first came to the pair's aid is in serious condition in the hospital. 

For shoppers in Salisbury's busy town center, the heavy police presence is unsettling. "I just want to know when things are going to go back to normal," said Sally White, a 37-year-old mother of three. "It's awkward getting around town and I feel worried about letting the kids run off in case they go under one of these police lines. Let's be honest here, no one really knows what we are dealing with or how dangerous this substance is to anyone in the wider environment."

You could have fooled the town's residents

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Public health warnings

The two venues at the center of the incident are Zizzis, a popular chain pizza restaurant where the Skripals had eaten lunch, and The Mill, a riverside pub. Both venues are currently closed and cordoned off, with Zizzi's covered up by green panels that obstruct pedestrians. 

On Sunday, almost a week after the poisoning, England's chief medical officer advised that anyone who had been in either establishment on Sunday should wash their clothes. Although the risk is said to be "low," there are some concerns about the health effects of long-term exposure.

The Mill pub remains closed for the time being

It is thought that up to 500 people could have passed through Zizzis and The Mill in the time period in question. The advice has left some feeling bemused. Martin Lewis, 53, was in the pub for an hour on Sunday. "I stopped off for a drink there as I often do. I have absolutely no idea what I was wearing last Sunday — and frankly, I'd have thought the damage is done by now. Are we at risk or not? The advice doesn't seem clear, when on the one hand we're being told not to worry and on the other that we might have been contaminated."

Life goes on in Salisbury

Although much of the city is operating as normal, some businesses in the immediate vicinity of the shopping center are concerned that customers will be deterred. "It's hardly an appealing sight to see 20 coppers in high-visibility jackets standing around near the entrance of a shop or cafe," said Sarah Glenn, who works in a nearby shop. "If it goes on much longer I suspect we'll see a real drop off. The worst would be if it continues into tourist season and puts people off coming to Salisbury altogether."

The city center remains bustling, despite the signs reading "police do not cross," officers ensuring that these lines are not breached, and television camera crews. Yet the surreal nature of the situation is not lost on Salisbury's residents. 

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Locals are trying to adjust to their town being the focus of an international media presence

"It's so weird turning the TV on and seeing Salisbury on there everyday — even on American news channels like CNN," said Lucy Miller, a 16-year-old student. "We have been making a bit of a joke of it at school as the situation is just so bizarre, like something from a spy movie, but it's definitely scary when you think about it."

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A history of political poisonings

Sergei Skripal

Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian spy, was found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the British city of Salisbury after he was exposed to what police said was an unknown substance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the situation "tragic" but said, "We don't have information about what could be the cause, what this person did."

A history of political poisonings

Kim Jong Nam

The estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un was killed on February 13, 2018 at Kuala Lumpur airport after two women allegedly smeared the chemical nerve agent VX on his face. In February, a Malaysian court heard that Kim Jong Nam had been carrying a dozen vials of antidote for the deadly nerve agent VX in his backpack at the time of the poisoning.

A history of political poisonings

Alexander Litvinenko

Former Russian spy Litvinenko had worked for the Federal Security Service (FSB) before he defected to Britain, where he became a journalist and wrote two books of accusations against the FSB and Putin. He became ill after meeting with two former KGB officers and died on November 23, 2006. A government inquiry found he was killed by radioactive polonium-210 which it alleged the men put in his tea.

A history of political poisonings

Viktor Kalashnikov

In November 2010, doctors at Berlin's Charité hospital discovered high levels of mercury had been found in a Russian dissident couple working in Berlin. Kalashnikov, a freelance journalist and former KGB colonel, had 3.7 micrograms of mercury per litre of blood, while his wife had 56 micrograms. A safe level is 1-3 micrograms. Viktor reportedly told German magazine Focus that "Moscow poisoned us."

A history of political poisonings

Viktor Yushchenko

Ukrainian opposition leader Yushchenko became sick in September 2004 and was diagnosed with acute pancreatis caused by a viral infection and chemical substances. The illness resulted in facial disfigurement, with pockmarks, bloating and jaundice. Doctors said the changes to his face were from chloracne, which is a result of dioxin poisoning. Yushchenko claimed government agents poisoned him.

A history of political poisonings

Khaled Meshaal

On September 25, 1997, Israel's intelligence agency attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Meshaal, under orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two agents sprayed a poisonous substance into Meshaal's ear as he walked into the Hamas offices in Amman, Jordan. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful and not long afterward the two Israeli agents were captured.

A history of political poisonings

Georgi Markov

In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Markov was waiting at a bus stop after a shift at the BBC when he felt a sharp jab in his thigh. He turned to see a man picking up an umbrella. A small bump appeared where he felt the jab and four days later he died. An autopsy found he'd been killed by a small pellet containing a 0.2-milligram dose of ricin. Many believe the poisoned dart was fired from the umbrella.

A history of political poisonings

Grigori Rasputin

On December 30, 1916, mystic and spiritual healer Rasputin arrived at Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg at the invitation Prince Felix Yusupov. There, Prince Yusupov offered Rasputin cakes laced with potassium cyanide but he just kept eating them. Yusupov then gave him wine in a cyanide-laced wine glasses, but still Rasputin continued to drink. With the poison failing, Rasputin was shot and killed.