Sleepy English city rocked by spy mystery


Salisbury (United Kingdom) (AFP)

The picturesque English city of Salisbury was on Tuesday coming to terms with the "intrusion of something rather horrible" after a former Russian spy was found unconscious on a bench, apparently poisoned.

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence, is fighting for his life along with his daughter after they were both found slumped outside The Maltings shopping centre on Sunday.

"It's an intrusion of something rather horrible into the life of a peaceful town," Kelvin Inglis, the 56-year-old vicar of the local St Thomas's Church, told AFP.

Traders on market day were also counting the cost as the normally sleepy medieval city was turned into a major crime scene at the centre of a potentially explosive international incident.

Speculation is rife about the role of the Russian state, after the poisoning of an ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 was blamed on the Kremlin.

Salisbury businesses were already suffering thanks to another arrival from Russia, the so-called "Beast from the East" storm that brought snow and ice to much of Britain.

"It's a pain in the backside, after 10 days of closure because of the snow," said florist Danny, in his 30s, as he set up his stall.

A police cordon cut off access to the pedestrianised area by the unassuming shopping precinct, where the market traders would normally set up shop, while a yellow-and-white tent was erected over the bench.

"This has certainly livened the place up," said Henry, 66, who runs a seafood stall.

"I can't remember this kind of excitement around Salisbury. First the snow, now this."

- Suburban intrigue -

Another cordon was set up out outside The Mill, one of the city's most popular pubs, where one policeman stood guard.

Another officer stood outside pizza restaurant Zizzi, which was "secured as a precaution" on Monday.

The town's claim to fame is its world-famous medieval cathedral, which houses one of the few surviving copies of the Magna Carta.

The building, completed in 1258, is one of the leading examples of Early English Architecture and boasts Britain's tallest cathedral spire, at 123 metres.

It also contains one of the world's oldest working clocks.

Salisbury is located in rural south west England, near the edge of Salisbury Plain, which is renowned for its rich archeology.

The city is only 8 miles (13 kilometres) from prehistoric stone circle Stonehenge.

Away from the crime scene, the town was as bustling as ever, with many shoppers making their way out for the first time since last week's big freeze.

It was a quieter picture in the suburban cul-de-sac on the edge of town where Skripal's humble home is located, an unlikely setting for an incident that could have come from the pages of a spy thriller.

Two police officers and a small press group gathered on the street, including a Russian TV crew, but residents were reluctant to talk, other than one neighbour who shouted "vultures" at the media pack.