Sergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this month, wrote to the Kremlin asking to return to Russia, according to one of his old school friends. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition in hospital, three weeks after being poisoned with a nerve agent that British scientists say belongs to Russia’s Cold-War-era chemical stockpiles. Moscow has angrily rejected claims that Skripal, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, was on a Kremlin-approved hit-list of defectors. On March 17, the Kremlin expelled 23 British diplomats from Moscow in response to London’s earlier expulsion of 23 Russians, which the British government said were “undeclared intelligence officers”.

On Saturday, the BBC said it contacted one of Skripal’s friends from his school days, who said that he was contacted by the double spy in 2012. Vladimir Timoshkov told the BBC that he was a childhood friend of Skripal when the two were in school together, but lost contact later in life. In 2006, when he learned through the media that Skripal had been convicted of espionage, Timoshkov said he managed to contact Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, after finding her on a social media platform. He remained in contact with her, and in 2012 he received a telephone call from Skripal himself. By that time, the double spy was living in England, having relocated there after the Kremlin swapped him and three others for 10 Russian spies who had been caught in the United States.

Timoshkov said that he and Skripal spoke for half an hour, during which Skripal told him he was “not a traitor” to the Soviet Union, the country that he had initially promised to protect. According to Timoshkov, Skripal also said that he had “regretted being a double agent” because his life had “become all messed up”. He also said that he felt isolated from his old classmates and friends, who shunned him following his arrest and conviction for espionage. During the telephone conversation, Skripal allegedly told Timoshkov that he had written a personal letter to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking for a full pardon. He did so because he missed his mother, brother, and other relatives who were living in Russia, and he wanted to visit them. In the letter to President Putin, Skripal denied that he betrayed his country and asked for “complete forgiveness” from the Russian leader, said Timoshkov.

But on Sunday, the Russian government denied that a letter from Skripal had been received by the Kremlin. The BBC report was also denied by the Russian embassy in London. In a tweet quoting the Kremlin, the embassy said: “There was no letter from Sergei Skripal to President Putin to allow him to come back to Russia.”

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