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May: Russia 'highly likely' behind agent poisoning

Alexander Pearson with Reuters and AFP
March 12, 2018

British PM Theresa May told Parliament that a Russian-produced nerve agent had been used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. The US has said those responsible should face "serious consequences."

A police officer in front of The Mill pub in Salisbury England
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/PA Wire/A. Matthews

British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers on Monday that it was "highly likely" Russia was behind the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the southern city of Salisbury.

If evidence eventually proves Moscow directly ordered the poisoning, May said the government would consider the attack an "unlawful use of force" on British territory.

Read more: British diners told to wash possessions after ex-spy poisoning

What May said:

  • The Russian government either ordered the attack, or it had lost control of the military-grade, Russian-produced chemical nerve agent Novichok that was used in the attack.
  • May said Moscow had until Tuesday evening to explain its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
  • The government has summoned the Russian ambassador in London to explain whether Moscow was directly responsible for the attack.
  • If there is "no credible response" by the end of Tuesday, the government would discuss retaliatory measures with the British Parliament.
  • Britain cannot have a normal relationship with Russia. "We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil," May said, adding: "There can be no question of business as usual with Russia."

Read more: Spy assassinations — The top 5 deadly poisons

What were the reactions?

"We have full confidence in the UK's investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week," said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "We agree that those responsible — both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it — must face appropriately serious consequences.

"It appears that it clearly came from Russia. Whether it came from Russia with the Russian government's knowledge is not known to me at this point," Tillerson added. 

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, dismissed May's speech as a "provocation," according to Russian news agencies. She added: "It is a circus show in the British parliament."

The Foreign Ministry also said in a statement that British media and politicians were using the poison attack to discredit Moscow ahead of the 2018 soccer world cup in Russia. The British, it said, "cannot forgive Russia for obtaining the right to host the 2018 World Cup in an honest competition."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of military-grade nerve agent was "horrendous and completely unacceptable." He added: "This incident is of great concern to NATO."

Read more: UK promises retaliation for 'brazen' chemical attack on Russian ex-spy

The attack: Sixty-six year old Sergei Skripal was found with his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, slumped on a bench in the southern English town of Salisbury on March 4. The unconscious pair was rushed to hospital where they remain in critical but stable condition. The nerve agent used to poison the pair also affected a policeman who found them. The officer is conscious but also remains in critical condition.

Who is Sergei Skripal? Skripal was a colonel in Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, before he was found guilty of betraying Russian agents to MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service. In 2010, he arrived in Britain as part of a spy swap deal between London and Moscow.

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