Former spy Sergei Skripals's nerve-agent poisoning snowballs into international scuffle as US, France support UK against Russia

Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday over the nerve agent poisoning of a former spy, and suspended high-level contacts, including for the FIFA World Cup in June, while the US joined London in blasting Moscow at the United Nations.

Prime Minister Theresa May told British parliament that Russia had failed to respond to her demand for an explanation on how a Soviet-designed chemical, Novichok, was used in the English city of Salisbury on 4 March.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, the US sided firmly with Britain, rejecting Moscow's claim that it was not involved in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The White House also issued a statement that the US "stands in solidarity with its closest ally". NATO allies have also expressed their support for Britain following the first use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War 2.

Finger pointing

On Monday, May said it was "highly likely" that Russia was behind the attack, which left Skripal and his daughter in a critical condition and a policeman in hospital. She said Russia could be directly responsible or may have "lost control" of the nerve agent, and gave Moscow until midnight on Tuesday to disclose details of the Novichok programme to the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

On Wednesday, she said Russia had responded with "sarcasm, contempt and defiance".

Moscow said it is willing to cooperate, but has accused Britain of failing to follow its own obligations for the investigation under OPCW rules, complaining that its request for samples of the nerve agent have been rejected. At the United Nations, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia repeated Moscow's denials and suggested the attack was a provocation aimed at tarnishing Russia's image ahead of the World Cup and elections. "Russia had nothing to do with this incident," Nebenzia told the council, and again demanded proof of a link to Russia. "We have nothing to fear. We have nothing to hide," he said.

Who is Sergei Skripal

Skripal is a retired Russian double agent who was leading a seemingly peaceful life in rural Britain when he and his visiting daughter were allegedly targeted last week. A former colonel in the Russian military intelligence service, he was accused of "high treason" in 2006 for selling information to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2010, he benefited from a spy swap between Moscow on one side and London and Washington on the other.

The former agent settled in the small city of Salisbury, southwest of London. Here he lived an apparently unremarkable existence, setting up home in a modest red-brick suburban housing estate.

Investigators in protective clothing remove a van from an address in Winterslow, Wiltshire, as part of their investigation into the nerve-agent poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in England, Monday, March 12, 2018. British Prime Minister Theresa May will update lawmakers Monday on Skripal and his daughter, and a senior lawmaker said he expects her to blame the Russian government. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

File image of the investigation into the nerve-agent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. AP

On 4 March, Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who arrived on a visit from Russia, had a drink and then ate lunch in Salisbury. Emergency services were called to a bench near the shopping centre a little later, finding them in what police said was an "extremely serious condition". One of them had vomited, while Skripal had glazed eyes and was shaking his hands towards the sky, witnesses said. They were immediately taken to hospital, where police said they remain in a critical condition.

One of the first officers at the scene, Nick Bailey, was also hospitalised. He remains in a serious condition, but police said he was "making good progress". Another 35 people were assessed for possible exposure, all but one of them were swiftly discharged. One person is being monitored as an outpatient, but has shown no signs of illness.

Experts have identified the substance used as a military-grade nerve agent of a "type developed by Russia", and part of a group of such agents known as Novichok. Even the Russian chemist who first revealed the existence of Novichok nerve agents, Vil Mirzayanov, has said that only the Russians can be behind the weapon's use in Britain. Mirzayanov said he is convinced Russia carried it out as a way of intimidating opponents of President Vladimir Putin.

Only the Russians developed this class of nerve agents, said the chemist. "They kept it and are still keeping it in secrecy," he alleged.

The only other possibility, he said, would be that someone used the formulas in his book to make such a weapon. This is the first time the nerve agents, which took 15 years to develop and were tested on animals, have been used to try to kill somebody, Mirzayanov said.

An attack with Novichok agents, which are 10 times stronger than VX, is excruciating and have no cure, he added. He said half a gram is enough to kill a person who weighs 50 kilograms. Someone exposed to it will first have their vision go blurry, and if no antidote is applied, will be hit with violent convulsions and can no longer breathe. "I have seen the effect on animals — rabbits, dogs, etc. It is awful," he said. Even if they do not die, Skripal and his daughter will suffer for the rest of their lives, he predicted.

Mirzayanov said that as awful as it has been, the attack in Britain might lead to something good: The UK and other western countries insisting on Novichok agents being registered in the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as he has been urging for more than 20 years.

Allied support

May has spoken to US president Donald Trump, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel in recent days to rally international support. "France's solidarity with the UK is unquestionable," the French Embassy in London said on Wednesday, noting two country's leaders "will discuss the matter yet again this Thursday".

In a joint statement by its 29 member states, the US-led NATO alliance said the attack was a "clear breach of international norms and agreements" and called on Russia to fully disclose details of the Novichok programme.

EU Council president Donald Tusk offered his "full solidarity" and indicated the issue would be on the agenda of next week's summit in Brussels.

With inputs from AFP


Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 09:36 AM

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