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Britain gives until midnight to explain nerve attack on former spy

Issued: 2018-03-13

6 Min Read

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain gave President Vladimir Putin until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used to strike down a former Russian double agent who passed secrets to British intelligence.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4 when they were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the English cathedral city of Salisbury.

Prime Minister Theresa May said it was“highly likely” that Russia was to blame after Britain identified the substance as part of the highly-lethal Novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country,” May told parliament on Monday.“Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

Russia holds a presidential election on March 18 in which Putin, himself a former KGB spy, is expected to coast to a fourth term in the Kremlin. It has denied any role in the poisoning and says Britain is whipping up anti-Russian hysteria.

Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, summoned to the Foreign Office, was given until the end of Tuesday to explain what happened or face what May said were“much more extensive” measures against the $1.5 trillion Russian economy.

If no satisfactory Russian response is received by midnight London time then May will outline Britain’s response in parliament. She was due to hold a meeting of top security officials on Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the British response would be“commensurate but robust”.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday ousted Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, said that it sounded as if Russia was to blame. Trump said he would take the British conclusions about Russia’s involvement as fact.

Russia has requested access to the nerve agent used against Skripal but Britain has rejected this, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Britain’s ambassador to Russia met Lavrov’s deputy in Moscow on Tuesday, an embassy spokesman said.

Britain could call on allies for a coordinated Western response, freeze the assets of Russian business leaders and officials, expel diplomats, launch targeted cyber attacks and cut back participation in events such as the soccer World Cup.

While trade figures show that Russia accounts for less than 1 percent of British imports, London is of major importance for Russian companies seeking to raise capital and is the Western capital of choice for many Russian business leaders.

The European Union said that the attempted murder of Skripal was“shocking” and that it was ready to support Britain if asked to do so. France and Germany condemned the attack and offered support to Britain.

“We stand with the UK in pursuit of justice in this case and are ready to offer support if necessary,” a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.

Huge amounts of Russian money have poured into the British capital since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, causing some to refer to it as“Londongrad”.


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