Sergei Skripal, 66, one of four Russians exchanged for 10 deep cover “sleeper” agents planted by Moscow in the U.S. is critically ill in a Salisbury hospital after being poisoned by “suspected exposure to an unknown substance”.

Wiltshire police said that a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s were found unconscious on a bench in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon.

Temporary assistant chief constable Craig Holden said that the pair were believed to have been known to each other and were in a critical condition. He added: “This has not been declared as a counter-terrorism incident and we would urge people not to speculate.

“However, I must emphasise that we retain an open mind and we will continue to review this position.”

The UK’s top counter-terrorism officer said his specialists were supporting the investigation. Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said: “Clearly it’s a very unusual case and the critical thing is to get to the bottom of what has caused this incident as quickly as possible.

A passerby, Freya Church, saw the pair at the shopping centre. She told the BBC: “On the bench there was a couple – an older guy and a younger girl. She was leant in on him. It looked like she’d passed out. He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky. I felt anxious, like I should step in but they looked so out of it. They looked like they had been taking something quite strong.”

Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street in the city centre has been closed in connection with the incident “as a precaution” while the investigation continues, police said.

Skripal is a former Russian army colonel who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian agents working undercover in Europe to MI6 in 2006. He arrived in the UK as part of a high-profile spy swap in 2010.

Igor Sutyagin, who was swapped at the same time as Skripal and is now in the UK, said “Vladimir Putin was once asked what type of people populate the world. He said traitors and enemies. I was told once by a Russian diplomat in London that Putin compared me to Judas. That is their attitude.”

Sergei Skripal as he was arrested by FSB agents in Moscow in 2006.

The Russian press claim that Skripal’s poisoning is a ploy by the British to influence the upcoming Presidential election where Vladimir Putin is running for re-election. The British released a photo of a man and woman who were walking near where the two were found on the park bench as persons of interest.

The case looks much like the 2006 death of former FSB operative Alexander Litvinenko who fell ill and died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium. Litvinenko met his killers in the bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair, central London.

The two were Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer turned businessman, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma – and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s.

Putin denied all accusations over the killing and refused to extradite the pair.

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Photo courtesy Wikipedia