The Mail on Sunday

Skripal was tailed on eve of attack ... so was there a second spy team?

- By Nick Constable and Ian Gallagher

THE best friend of Sergei Skripal has revealed the Russian spy suspected ‘retributio­n was coming’ in the weeks before he was poisoned.

Speaking for the first time, Ross Cassidy said Mr Skripal – who betrayed dozens of his old comrades to MI6 – seemed ‘spooked’ and changed his mobile phone amid concern it was being monitored.

On the day before the Novichok attack, Mr Cassidy and his wife drove the 67-year-old to Heathrow to pick up his daughter Yulia, 33, who had flown in from Moscow.

Sources close to the investigat­ion said Mr Skripal told detectives they were then followed home to Salisbury.

This newspaper has learned that the security services believe a second team – in addition to the two- man hit squad accused last week of the attempted murder of the Skripals – were involved in the operation.

Interpol has been put on red alert to detain the two GRU intelligen­ce agents, who use the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

But others, also still at large, are suspected of tracking the Skripals’ movements.

Mr Cassidy, 62, a former submariner, said: ‘In hindsight, with some of the things Sergei said, he suspected retributio­n was coming.’

‘Sergei was very apprehensi­ve. It was as though he knew something was up. Had he been tipped off or heard that things were moving against him back in Russia?

‘One thing is for sure. He was unusually twitchy. He was spooked.’

The Mail on Sunday can also reveal that the security services are investigat­ing the possibilit­y that UK Border Force’s computer systems were hacked to enable Petrov and Boshirov to pass easily through Gatwick passport control. ‘ Something has overridden the system to allow them to come in unhindered – that is what is being investigat­ed now,’ said a highly placed source.

Petrov and Boshirov arrived at Gatwick from Moscow at 3pm on Friday, March 2. Police said that the next day they travelled to Salisbury by train on a reconnaiss­ance mission, arriving at 2.25pm.

By this time Sergei Skripal, Mr Cassidy and his wife Mo were at Heathrow awaiting Yulia’s flight.

Police say Novichok was sprayed on to the front door handle of the Skripal’s house the following afternoon between midday and about 1pm. Sergei and Yulia became ill around three hours later.

But Mr Cassidy questions the police timeline. It is his understand­ing that Sergei and Yulia were at home until 1pm. And he said Mr Skripal’s ‘heightened state of awareness’ would have frustrated any attack in broad daylight.

He said: ‘I spent hours and hours with the Counter Terrorism Command being interviewe­d and talking about this attack.

‘I found their work on this inquiry very thorough and meticulous. Every little detail was talked about and refined over and over again.

‘ I have the utmost respect for these officers. I find it very difficult to dispute their findings.

‘However, I was surprised that they said the Novichok was placed on the Sunday lunchtime. I have always thought it was placed on the Saturday afternoon when we were collecting Yulia from Heathrow, or even Saturday night.

‘ These guys are profession­al assassins. It would have been far too brazen for them to have walked down a dead end cul-de-sac in broad daylight on a Sunday lunchtime.

‘Sergei’s house faces up the culde-sac. He had a converted garage that he used as his office – this gives a full view of the street.

‘Almost always, Sergei used to open the door to us before we had chance to knock. Whenever we visited, he’d see us approachin­g.

‘Something had spooked Sergei in the weeks prior to the attack. He was twitchy, I don’t know why, and he even changed his mobile phone.

‘ You might s ay t he precise timings don’t matter. But they do matter because they don’t currently make sense.’

Mr Cassidy was among the first Britons to befriend Mr Skripal when he arrived in the UK after a 2010 spy-swap with the Kremlin.

He said: ‘While I was aware he was a former Russian agent, we never discussed it because I felt it was none of my business. And besides we had good fun.

‘To me, Sergei was just a nice guy, very approachab­le and funny and liked a drink. All the aspects that appealed to me in a friendship.’

 ??  ?? MYSTERY: Ross Cassidy, left, said his ‘fun’ friend Sergei Skripal became very worried in the days before the attack – he also questions the police timeline of events
MYSTERY: Ross Cassidy, left, said his ‘fun’ friend Sergei Skripal became very worried in the days before the attack – he also questions the police timeline of events
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