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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Salisbury: the medieval city at the centre of spy assassination bid

The attempted killing of a double agent at the home of the British military establishment represented a blow to the prestige of the UK intelligence agencies

A police cordon remains at The Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, southern England, where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, were found critically ill after an attack by nerve agent. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS
A police cordon remains at The Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, southern England, where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, were found critically ill after an attack by nerve agent. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS

The run-up to Mothering Sunday would normally be flower seller Mark Fitzpatrick’s busiest week of the year at his stall in the centre of the medieval city of Salisbury. This year, his lucrative pitch has been the scene of a high-profile international crime and sealed off by a police cordon.

Mr Fitzpatrick’s prime flower-selling spot is just ten yards from the bench where a Russian former double agent and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious after they were exposed to nerve agent last weekend.

While Sergei Skripal, 66, remains critically ill in hospital after a suspected state-sponsored attack, Mr Fitzpatrick is counting the cost to his small business after his pitch was moved outside of the police protected zone and shoppers avoided the area.

Mr Fitzpatrick returned to the scene of the attack on Monday and could only point to the pitch located beyond a line of blue and white police tape, now guarded by an officer. The area is likely to remain sealed off for at least another 24 hours as police and toxicological experts try to work out who and what substance was behind the attack, officials said.

“All week we have been on tenterhooks because they never said when it would reopen,” said Mr Fitzpatrick. “It was our number one week of the year and pays for all the lean weeks. I normally take about £15-20,000 but I’ve ended up with about a tenth of that.”

Mark Fitzpatrick with his unsold flowers in Salisbury. Photo by Paul Peachey/The National
Mark Fitzpatrick with his unsold flowers in Salisbury. Photo by Paul Peachey/The National

Mr Fitzpatrick’s anxiety has summed up the unintended consequences that followed what police say was a targeted assassination attempt. Despite its small-town feel, Salisbury is a hub of British military expertise and home to current and former military experts.

Salisbury Plain outside of the city is the British Army’s largest training area. The nearby Boscombe Down is a military aviation centre where defence companies have secured contracts from Boeing and maintain Apache helicopters, said the city’s council leader Matthew Dean.

Porton Down just eight miles from Salisbury, is home to the secretive chemical and biological testing centre where scientists have been working to isolate and identify the agent used against Mr Skripal.

“The city has a high proportion of military people living here and I think there’s been a slightly more relaxed view about what has happened because of that,” said Salisbury councillor John Walsh. “People have a certain amount of knowledge from this sort of thing from their previous experience in the military. If this had to happen anywhere, then at least here there was less chance of people getting really worked up.”

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Read more:

Russian spy poisoning: nerve agent traces found at pizza restaurant – report

British military brought in after spy nerve agent attack

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If Mr Skripal was targeted in a state-sponsored attack, analysts said that it has cast doubt on the ability of the country’s intelligence agencies to protect and attract defectors. The area where Mr Skripal was found is covered by numerous security cameras installed across the city last year in a £400,000 project, Mr Dean told The National. The camera project – which had suffered teething problems – was fully up and running and operational last weekend.

The high-definition footage is sharp enough to identify individual car number plates and a “great deal” has been handed over to the police, said Mr Dean.

Police have yet to reveal where Mr Skripal was targeted. One theory is that the nerve agent was kept inside a package that Yulia unwittingly brought over from Russia and opened at his home.

It would mean that the footage may show little that could lead police to the would-be killer or killers. Police continued to maintain a cordon at the end of his quiet residential road a mile from the town centre, allowing only neighbours to go in and out.

The two places where the pair were known to have visited in the hours before they became ill, the Zizzi pizza restaurant and The Mill public house just a few yards away remained closed and guarded by police on Monday.

Health officials on Sunday said there may have been some “limited contamination” in the two places and encouraged anyone who had been there to wash clothes and possessions. They said it was a “precautionary approach” because of a small health risk linked to repeated contact with contaminated items.

As the owner of Salisbury’s only independent dry cleaner, Ashley Ford was on Monday expecting a rush of customers as a result of the advice. His shop is just a few yards from the cordoned off zone.

He said he ventured out last week to go to the bank in the days after the attack. He got caught up in a major security alert when a woman working in an office next to the contaminated restaurant fell sick. “It was like a scene from a film,” he said. “There were police, ambulances, the fire brigade, a helicopter flying around.”

In such a small place, an event of international importance had been the only topic of discussion for the first few days he told The National. The point was illustrated by a customer who arrived at his shop with a bundle of curtains for cleaning. “I have quite a lot,” she said. “But they definitely don’t have nerve agent on them.”