DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The United Kingdom and Russia are in quite a standoff over a case that, I mean, honestly sounds like a cold-war thriller. A Russian national who spied for Britain was poisoned, along with his daughter, using a Soviet-era nerve agent. This attack happened in the small, southern English city of Salisbury. And this poisoning is one of more than a dozen suspected hits on Kremlin critics in the United Kingdom. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Salisbury.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: As the head of the Salisbury City Council, Matthew Dean thought he knew everyone in town until one Sunday last year, when he stopped at a local pub for a beer.
MATTHEW DEAN: There was this very loud, late middle-aged man with a thick Russian accent in a white tracksuit drinking vodka. And that's not the sort of thing in Salisbury that you see very much.
KAKISSIS: A little over a week ago, Dean found out the man was Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian intelligence official. Skripal had been jailed in Russia for passing state secrets to Britain, then freed in a spy exchange. He'd lived in Salisbury since 2011. On March 4, he and his daughter Yuliya were found slumped on a park bench here. They'd been poisoned by a military-grade, Soviet-era nerve agent.
KAKISSIS: Retired cathedral worker Sally Smythe is having a coffee near the cordoned-off spot where the Skripals were poisoned.
SALLY SMYTHE: To see so many police on the streets and so much cordoning off was a little unnerving for the first few days.
KAKISSIS: Public health officials have now warned that hundreds of people may have been contaminated by novichok, the Soviet nerve agent used in the poisoning. Like others, Smythe is concerned.
SMYTHE: We've really received information very, very slowly and not very accurately.
KAKISSIS: Salisbury is not used to this.
JOE RIDDLE: As a run-of-the-mill week, we'll probably focus on things like parking charges in the city...
KAKISSIS: Joe Riddle is editor of the local newspaper. He says authorities have been tight-lipped.
RIDDLE: They keep saying they won't be giving a running commentary on the events as they're unfolding, so it has been difficult to get the facts that, perhaps, we would like to have got.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Yelling, unintelligible).
KAKISSIS: Down the street, there's an open-air market. Simon Stephens sells fresh-roasted coffee here twice a week.
(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE GRINDING)
KAKISSIS: He worries about a confrontation with Russia as Britain withdraws from the EU.
SIMON STEPHENS: To me, this is just another reason for staying part of the EU because we're much stronger as a - in a bloc of other countries. Alone, I don't think we - yes, what can we do against Russia, you know?
KAKISSIS: Skripal's poisoning seems to follow a pattern of attacks on Kremlin critics who live in Britain. Reporter Jane Bradley was part of a BuzzFeed UK team that uncovered 14 suspicious deaths. The British intelligence service says they're now looking into those deaths. Bradley spoke to NPR by Skype.
JANE BRADLEY: The deaths that we covered range from supposed suicides, falling out of windows and even one case where a scientist supposedly stabbed himself with two different knives.
KAKISSIS: And yesterday, another Kremlin critic was found dead in his London home. Police are investigating. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Salisbury.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.