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Moscow calls Britain's spy attack accusations a 'dirty attempt to discredit Russia'

The nerve agent Novichok is believed to have been used.

Image: WPA Pool

Updated 2.38pm

MOSCOW HAS CALLED Britain’s accusations of its involvement in the poisoning of a former double agent an attempt to “discredit” Russia and vowed to retaliate against any sanctions.

“The incident is yet another dirty attempt by British authorities to discredit Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that threats of sanctions “will not be left without a response.”

The Guardian reports that Russia has now summoned the UK’s ambassador to the foreign ministry in Moscow following the events.

Theresa May had earlier given the Russian ambassador in London a deadline of tonight to explain whether the poisoning of Sergei Skripal was a direct act by the Russian state against the UK, or whether it “lost control” of the nerve agent.

Yesterday, she said that it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the attack last Sunday – claims that were described as “unfounded” by Russia.

May spoke in the House of Commons yesterday about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal (66) and his daughter Yulia (33) in Salisbury. The pair were found in critical condition in the town on 4 March. A police detective who came in contact with them is in serious but stable condition.

At a press conference today, the UK’s counterterrorism chief Neil Basu appealed for any members of the public who had seen Sergei Skripal’s red BMW – registration HD09 WAO – on Sunday 4 March to get in touch. Police are also seeking dash cam footage.

He said that Skripal’s daughter arrived at Heathrow from Moscow at 2.40pm on Saturday 3 March. The next day, Sunday 4 March, the pair were in the Salisbury Sainsbury’s car park at 1.40pm. They then went to the Bishop’s Mill pub, followed by the restaurant Zizzi at 2.20pm. They remained at the restaurant until 3.35pm.

A member of the public contacted the emergency services at 4.15pm and the pair were found on a bench outside Zizzi restaurant “in an extremely serious condition”.

Police are combing through CCTV footage and the public has told that there will be a “great deal of police activity in and around the city”.

38 people have been seen in relation to the incident and 34 have been discharged (the remaining four include Skripal, his daughter, and a police officer).

Skripal and his daughter are both in a critical but stable condition.

Pressure

The British PM said that Russia must also “provide full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the oversight body for the international chemical weapons convention.

The PM was speaking after she chaired a National Security Council meeting to hear the latest evidence in the case. She has been under pressure to hit Russia with sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and other measures in response to the poisoning, the latest in a string of mysterious mishaps to befall Russians in Britain in recent years.

The BBC says that the UK’s government emergencies committee, Cobra, is to meet to discuss the case.

May said yesterday that Britain would consider tough action if Russia’s explanation is inadequate, though she didn’t give details.

She said Britain would be prepared to take “much more extensive measures” than the expulsions and limited sanctions imposed after the death of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium in London in 2006.

“We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil,” May added.

‘An outrage’

The White House said the use of the nerve agent “is an outrage” but wasn’t ready to say that Russia was responsible.

Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the poisoning “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible,” adding that the US stands by its ally.

British opposition lawmakers are urging the adoption of a version of the United States’ Magnitsky Act, a law allowing authorities to ban or seize the assets of individuals guilty of human rights abuses. It is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Russian prison after exposing a $230 million fraud involving organized crime and a Russian government official in 2008.

Critics of the British government say the UK’s response to Russian wrongdoing has been muted because London’s property market and financial sector are magnets for billions in Russian money.

Investigations Continue At The Scene Of Salisbury Spy Poisoning A masked police officer drives out of the upper level of a Sainsbury's supermarket car park, opposite the park bench where Sergei Skripal was found, after cordoning it off as investigations continue into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal Source: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Many see echoes between the Skripal case and the killing of Litvinenko, which a British inquiry concluded was the work of the Russian state, probably on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin has denied involvement in Litvinenko’s death, and it dismissed claims it was behind the attack on the Skripals.

‘Nothing to do with Russia’

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Sergei Skripal worked for British intelligence and was poisoned on British soil, and therefore the incident “has nothing to do with Russia, let alone the Russian leadership”.

Skripal was a Russian military intelligence officer when he was recruited to spy for Britain in the 1990s. He was jailed in Russia in 2006 for revealing state secrets before being freed in a spy swap in 2010. He had settled in Salisbury, 140 kilometres southwest of London.

Almost 200 troops, including soldiers trained in chemical warfare and decontamination, have been deployed to Salisbury to assist the police investigation into where the nerve agent came from and how it was delivered.

British officials have said the risk to the public is low, but urged people who visited the Zizzi restaurant or Mill pub, where the Skripals went before their collapse, to wash their clothes as a precaution. Some have questioned why it took health authorities a week to issue the advice.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cast the poisoning of Skripal as part of a “certain unleashing of activity” by Russia that the United States is struggling to understand. He warned that the poisoning would “certainly trigger a response.”

Tillerson said he didn’t yet know whether Russia’s government knew of the attack with a military-grade nerve agent, but that one way or another, “it came from Russia.”

He said it was “almost beyond comprehension” why a state actor would deploy such a dangerous substance in a public place in a foreign country where others could be exposed.

“I cannot understand why anyone would take such an action. But this is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely,” Tillerson told reporters as he flew from Nigeria to Washington. “It is only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties.”

British Army Deployed To The Scene Of Spy's Poisoning Military personnel wearing protective suits remove a police car and other vehicles from a public park park as they continue investigations into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. Source: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty

May said that Novichock, the nerve agent used against ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, was developed by the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War.

Tillerson, who spoke yesterday by phone with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, said he’s grown “extremely concerned” about Russia, noting that he spent most of the first year of the Trump administration trying to solve problems and narrow differences with the Kremlin. He said after a year of trying, “we didn’t get very far.”

“Instead what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive,” Tillerson said.

And this is very, very concerning to me and others that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is.

He said if the poisoning turned out to be the work of Russia’s government, “this is a pretty serious action.”

“It certainly will trigger a response. I’ll leave it at that,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson, whose relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin dates back to his days as Exxon Mobil’s CEO, has sought to work with Russia on narrow areas where the two countries could find common ground, such as a cease-fire in southwestern Syria that has largely held since last year.

But those efforts have had diminishing results. Tillerson’s efforts to persuade Moscow to stop propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad and to pull out of Crimea have yielded little to no progress.

At the same time, President Donald Trump’s critics regularly accuse his administration of failing to stand up to the Kremlin, especially over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Russia hawks in Congress are particularly miffed that the State Department so far has declined to use a new law letting the US slap sanctions on foreign companies or governments that do business with Russia’s defence or intelligence sectors.

Those powers took effect in January, but so far nobody has been punished.

- Additional reporting © AFP, 2018

Read: Theresa May: It is ‘highly likely’ Russia was responsible for nerve agent spy attack>

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