‘Nasty’, ‘two-faced’, ‘brain dead’: NATO pulls off summit despite insults

By Robin Emmott and Andreas Rinke

WATFORD, England (Reuters) – NATO leaders set aside public insults ranging from “delinquent” to “brain dead” on Wednesday, declaring at a 70th anniversary summit they would stand together against a common threat from Russia and prepare for China’s rise.

Officials insisted the summit was a success: notably, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan backed off from an apparent threat to block plans to defend northern and eastern Europe unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.

But the meeting began and ended in acrimony startling even for the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, who arrived declaring the French president “nasty” and left calling Canada’s prime minister “two-faced” for mocking him on a hot mic.

“We have been able to overcome our disagreements and continue to deliver on our core tasks to protect and defend each other,” NATO’s ever-optimistic Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.

In a joint declaration, the leaders said: “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

The half-day summit at a golf resort on the outskirts of London was always going to be tricky, with officials hoping to avoid acrimony that burst forth at their meeting last year when Trump complained about allies failing to bear the burden of collective security.

But this year’s meeting was made even more difficult by Erdogan, who launched an incursion into Syria and bought Russian missiles against the objections of his allies, and by French President Emmanuel Macron, who had described the alliance’s strategy as brain dead in an interview last month.

In public it seemed to go worse than expected, beginning on Tuesday when Trump called Macron’s remarks “very, very nasty” and described allies who spend too little on defense as “delinquents” — a term officials said Trump used again on Wednesday behind closed doors during the summit itself.

At a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday evening, Canada’s Justin Trudeau was caught on camera with Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, laughing at Trump’s long press appearances. “You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” said Trudeau.

By the time the summit wound up on Wednesday, Trump had decided not to hold a final press conference, saying he had already said enough. “He’s two-faced,” Trump said of Trudeau.

HUAWEI SECURITY RISK

Nevertheless, officials said important decisions were reached, including an agreement to ensure the security of communications, including new 5G mobile phone networks. The United States wants allies to ban equipment from the world’s biggest telecoms gear maker, Chinese firm Huawei.

“I do think it’s a security risk, it’s a security danger,” Trump said in response to a question on Huawei, although the leaders’ declaration did not refer to the company by name.

“I spoke to Italy and they look like they are not going to go forward with that. I spoke to other countries, they are not going to go forward,” he said of contracts with Huawei.

Ahead of the summit, Johnson — the British host who faces an election next week and chose to avoid making any public appearances with Trump — appealed for unity.

“Clearly it is very important that the alliance stays together,” he said. “But there is far, far more that unites us than divides us.”

Macron held his ground over his earlier criticism of NATO’s strategy, saying as he arrived that it was important for leaders to discuss issues in an open and forthright manner if they were to find solutions.

“I think it’s our responsibility to raise differences that could be damaging and have a real strategic debate,” he said. “It has started, so I am satisfied.”

One of Macron’s chief complaints is that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its incursion in Syria and buying Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.

In his comments to the press, Stoltenberg said that while Russia was a threat, NATO also wanted to ensure a constructive dialogue with it. He added, in a reference to Turkey, that the S-400 system was in no way compatible with NATO’s defense.

At the summit, Europe, Turkey and Canada pledged to spend an extra $400 billion on defense by 2024, responding to Trump’s accusations that they spend too little. Germany, a frequent target of Trump’s blandishments, has promised to spend 2% of national output by 2031.

France and Germany also won backing for a strategic review of NATO’s mission, with the alliance set to establish a “wise persons” group to study how the organization needs to reposition for the future. That could involve shifting its posture away from the East and toward threats in the Middle East and Africa.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, John Chalmers and Johnny Cotton in Watford, and Estelle Shirbon in London; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by John Chalmers and Peter Graff)

‘Very, very nasty’: Trump clashes with Macron before NATO summit

By Michel Rose and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by backers as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Macron, the French president, stood by comments he made last month describing NATO as suffering from a lack of strategic purpose akin to “brain death”, and criticized fellow NATO member Turkey, which he accused of working with Islamic State proxies.

Washington and Paris have long argued over NATO’s purpose – France opposed the 2003 Iraq war – but the new tensions will add to doubts over the alliance’s future that have grown with Trump’s ambivalence over U.S. commitments to defend Europe.

Trump said Macron’s criticism of NATO was “very, very nasty” and questioned whether the U.S. military should defend any countries that were “delinquent” on alliance targets for national military spending.

“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said of transatlantic disputes on issues ranging from the aerospace sector to a European digital services tax on U.S. technology giants.

All 29 member states have a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and Trump has singled out Germany for falling short of that goal.

But Macron stood by his criticism of NATO and said its real problem was a failure to forge a clear purpose since the end of the Cold War.

“If we invest money and put our soldiers’ lives at risk in theaters of operation we must be clear about the fundamentals of NATO,” he said in a tweet at the end of a day overshadowed by tensions between the French and U.S. leaders.

A French presidency official said Trump often makes strident statements ahead of bilateral meetings and cools his rhetoric later. He noted that Macron and Trump “exchanged jokes and were very relaxed” at a joint news conference in London.

COLLECTIVE DEFENSE AT STAKE

Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO backed Ankara in recognizing the Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists.

The YPG’s fighters have long been U.S. and French allies against Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers them an enemy because of links to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said before traveling to London.

Erdogan has already strained alliance ties with a move to buy Russian air defense systems. Trump said he was looking at imposing sanctions on Ankara over the issue.

The uncertainty over the plan for Poland and the Baltic states, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all its members, and the alliance has military strategies for collective defense across its territory.

The summit, in a hotel in Hertfordshire just outside London, begins on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, alliance leaders attended a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

The British monarch, in a teal-colored matching jacket and skirt, greeted the summiteers and accompanying partners, including former fashion model Melania Trump, who was wearing a bright yellow dress with matching cape and purple sleeves.

They were then welcomed to 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the summit a little over a week before the country faces an election.

Several hundred protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, holding placards reading: “Dump Trump” and “No to racism, no to Trump”. A police line divided them from a small group of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps, waving American flags and shouting: “Build the wall”.

In Washington on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out their impeachment case against Trump, accusing him of using the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Hoping to placate Trump, Europe, Turkey and Canada will pledge at the summit some $400 billion in defense spending by 2024, and agree to a reduction of the U.S. contribution to fund the alliance itself.

The allies will approve a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity, and identify space as a domain of warfare, alongside air, land, sea and computer networks.

Trump said he believed Russia wanted deals on arms control and nuclear issues, and that he would be willing to bring China into such accords.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Robin Emmott and Iona Serrapica in London, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Mark John and John Chalmers; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

UK police discover 39 bodies in truck, arrest driver

UK police discover 39 bodies in truck, arrest driver
By Hannah McKay

GRAYS, England (Reuters) – British police found the bodies of 39 people inside a truck believed to have come from Bulgaria at an industrial estate near London on Wednesday, and said they had arrested the driver on suspicion of murder.

The discovery of the bodies – 38 adults and one teenager – was made in the early hours after emergency services were alerted to people in a truck container on a gritty industrial site in Grays, about 20 miles (32 km) east of central London.

The truck was thought to have entered Britain at Holyhead, a North Wales port that is a major entry point for traffic from Ireland, on Saturday and to have originally started its journey in Bulgaria, police said. The driver of the truck, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, was in custody.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was appalled by the news and was receiving regular updates about the investigation.

“We know that this trade is going on – all such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice,” he said.

All those in the container were pronounced dead at the scene after the emergency services were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park, not far from docks on the River Thames.

Bulgaria’s foreign ministry said had been in contact with the British authorities over the incident.

“At present, it has not yet been confirmed whether the truck has a Bulgarian registration,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said. “There is also no indication of the nationality of the human bodies found in the truck. British police have warned that the identification of the bodies will take a long time.”

“DESPERATE AND DANGEROUS SITUATION”

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Irish authorities would carry out any investigations necessary if it was established that the truck had passed through Ireland.

Police officers in forensic suits were inspecting a large white container on a red truck next to warehouses at the site. Police had sealed off the surrounding area of the estate with large green barriers as they carried out their investigation.

“At this stage, we have not identified where the victims are from or their identities and we anticipate this could be a lengthy process,” Essex Police Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills told reporters. “This is an absolute tragedy.”

Mills said finding out who the victims were was their top priority, while a key line of inquiry was determining the truck’s route from Bulgaria to Ireland and then onto Britain.

Nearby businesses said they had been unable to gain access to their units on the site due to the large police cordon.

“The police came in the night – they have closed the whole area,” said a worker at a nearby cafe, who declined to give his name.

For years, illegal immigrants have attempted to reach Britain stowed away in the back of trucks, often seeking to reach the United Kingdom from the European mainland.

In Britain’s biggest illegal immigrant tragedy in 2000, customs officials found the bodies of 58 Chinese people crammed into a tomato truck at the southern port of Dover.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the latest deaths were an unbelievable human tragedy that needed answers.

“Can we just think for a moment of what it must have been like for those 39 people, obviously in a desperate and dangerous situation, for their lives to end, suffocated to death in a container,” he said.

(Writing by Michael Holden; Additional reporting by William Schomberg and Kate Holton in London and Angel Krasimirov in Sofia; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alex Richardson)

Police treat stabbings at UK shopping mall as terrorism incident

By Peter Powell

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – British police said five people had been injured after a man lunged at passers-by with a large knife in a shopping center in northern England on Friday in a “brutal” attack officers were treating as terrorism.

The man attacked people around him and chased two unarmed officers shortly after entering Manchester’s Arndale shopping center in the heart of the city at about 11.15 a.m. (1015 GMT), police said.

He was overpowered by armed officers, with pictures on social media showing them using a stun gun to detain him. The man, in his 40s, was arrested on suspicion of terrorism although police said his motivation was not yet clear.

“He was armed with a large knife and … he began lunging and attacking people with the knife,” Assistant Chief Constable Russ Jackson told reporters.

“Two unarmed police community support officers … attempted to confront the attacker. He then chased them with a knife as they were calling for urgent assistance. The man attacked people around him and we understand five people were injured by him.”

Earlier, police said three people had suffered stab wounds; two women, one aged 19, and a man aged in his 50s. Jackson said the injuries were “nasty” but none had suffered life-threatening wounds.

“We do not know the motivation for this terrible attack, it appears random – it’s certainly brutal and of course extremely frightening for anyone who witnessed it,” Jackson said.

“We have the man we believe to be the attacker safely in custody. We will now be working to understand why he committed this awful attack.”

Britain has long been at a high state of alert and is currently at its second highest threat level, meaning an attack is considered highly likely.

Manchester was the location for Britain’s most deadly attack in recent years when Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton born to Libyan parents, killed 22 people in May 2017 when he blew himself up at the end of a pop concert by Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena, not far from the Arndale center.

Islamic State said it was responsible in the immediate aftermath of that bombing, but security services have always treated the claim with scepticism. Abedi’s brother, who is suspected of involvement, was extradited from Libya in July.

“This is bound to bring back memories of the awful events of 2017,” Jackson said. “At this time we do not believe there was anyone else involved in this attack but we will constantly be keeping this under review.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter: “Shocked by the incident in Manchester and my thoughts are with the injured and all those affected.”

(Reporting by Michael Holden, James Davey, Costas Pitas and William Schomberg; editing by Stephen Addison)

Chemical weapons agency agrees to ban Novichok nerve agents

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The OPCW global chemical weapons watchdog will add Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent used in an attack last year in Salisbury, England, to its list of banned toxins after its members adopted a proposal on Monday.

The 41 members of the decision-making body within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted a joint proposal by the United States, the Netherlands and Canada, member states said.

They agreed “to add two families of highly toxic chemicals (incl. the agent used in Salisbury),” Canada’s ambassador to the agency, Sabine Nolke, said on Twitter.

“Russia dissociated itself from consensus but did not break,” she wrote.

Western allies ordered the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War in response to the attack on former Russian secret service agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March.

Britain says Russian GRU military intelligence agents poisoned the Skripals with Novichok. Moscow denies involvement.

Monday’s OPCW decision was confidential and no other details were released.

It was the first such change to the organization’s so-called scheduled chemicals list, which includes deadly toxins VX, sarin and mustard gas, since it was established under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The OPCW’s 193 member countries have 90 days to lodge any objections to Monday’s decision.

The OPCW, once a technical organization operating by consensus, broke along political lines over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which Russia supports militarily.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Bereaved father weeps for lost baby at London’s Grenfell fire inquiry

FILE PHOTO: Workers stand inside the burnt out remains of the Grenfell tower in London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay/File Photo

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – Survivors of London’s deadly Grenfell Tower fire wept on Monday as they listened to a bereaved father pay tribute to his baby son and heard a recording of another victim making his last phone call from the burning building.

Those were among many heartbreaking moments on the first day of oral hearings at a public inquiry into the blaze, which killed 71 people in the social housing block in the night of June 14, 2017.

The fire shocked Britain and led to an outpouring of angst over whether poor quality social housing and neglect by the authorities of a deprived, ethnically diverse community had played a part in the tragedy.

Marcio and Andreia Gomes, parents of Logan Gomes, are comforted as they arrive for a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Marcio and Andreia Gomes, parents of Logan Gomes, are comforted as they arrive for a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The public inquiry, which will last many months, aims to establish the causes of the disaster, but first it has invited family and friends of those who died to talk about their lost loved ones and show pictures or videos if they wish.

Marcio Gomes, who fled from the 21st floor through thick, poisonous fumes with his heavily pregnant wife Andreia and their two daughters, went first with a highly emotional tribute to his son Logan, who was stillborn in hospital

hours after the family’s escape.

“I held my son in my arms, hoping it was all a bad dream, wishing, praying for a miracle, that he would open his eyes, move, make a sound,” Gomes said, crying as he spoke with his wife by his side.

Andreia was in an induced coma being treated for cyanide poisoning at the moment of Logan’s birth. He had been due to be born on Aug. 21, 2017.

Family photographs from before and after the tragedy flashed up on a screen, including an ultrasound scan image of unborn Logan in his mother’s womb, and images of him just after his birth, as well as photographs from his funeral.

“WE ARE NOW LEAVING THIS WORLD”

The inquiry also heard a recording of Afghan immigrant Mohamed Saber Neda phoning a relative from the 24-storey block.

“Goodbye. We are now leaving this world, goodbye. I hope I haven’t disappointed you. Goodbye to all,” Neda was heard saying in a calm voice in the voicemail message, as a photograph of him was shown on the screen.

Neda’s brother, son and wife paid moving tributes to the 56-year-old who ran his own chauffeur business.

Yvette Williams, representing Justice 4 Grenfell, and Clarrie Mendy-Solomon, who lost two family members in the disaster, speak outside a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Yvette Williams, representing Justice 4 Grenfell, and Clarrie Mendy-Solomon, who lost two family members in the disaster, speak outside a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Other Grenfell relatives and friends, lawyers and journalists in the hearing room wept as they watched and listened to one harrowing moment after another.

The commemoration hearings are expected to last nine days, although the schedule is uncertain as the inquiry has set no time limit for the tributes.

The oral hearings into the circumstances of the fire will start later, on June 4.

Separately from the public inquiry, the police are conducting a criminal investigation which could result in charges against organizations or individuals involved in the construction, maintenance or refurbishment of the tower.

While the official death toll from the fire is 71, the inquiry will commemorate 72 people as it is including Maria del Pilar Burton, a resident of the tower who died in January, having never left hospital since she escaped from the fire.

At the start of Monday’s hearing, everyone in the inquiry hearing room, at a conference center in a hotel in Kensington, stood in silence for 72 seconds to honor each victim.

Critics have accused the government and the local authority in Kensington and Chelsea of not doing enough done to rehouse the survivors and help them rebuild their lives.

As of Monday, 139 out of the 210 Grenfell households in need of a new home had moved into temporary or permanent properties. The remainder were still in other forms of housing, including 15 households still in what is classed as emergency accommodation, according to figures from the local authority.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

‘Violent scourge’ on London streets as murder figures overtake New York

Forensic investigators examine a car on Chalgrove Road, where a teenage girl was murdered, in Tottenham, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – London police investigated more murders than New York over the last two months, statistics show, as the mayor’s office condemned a “violent scourge” on the city’s streets after another weekend of bloodshed.

A 17-year-old girl died after she was found with gunshot wounds in Tottenham, north London, and a man was fatally stabbed in south London on Sunday.

“The Mayor is deeply concerned by violent crime in the capital – every life lost to violent crime is a tragedy,” a spokeswoman for London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement on Tuesday.

Forensic investigators examine the pavement and carriageway on Chalgrove Road, where a teenage girl was murdered, in Tottenham, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Forensic investigators examine the pavement and carriageway on Chalgrove Road, where a teenage girl was murdered, in Tottenham, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“Our city remains one of the safest in the world … but Sadiq wants it to be even safer and is working hard to bring an end to this violent scourge.”

There were 15 murders in London in February against 14 in New York, according to London’s Metropolitan Police Service and the New York Police Department. For March, 22 murders were investigated in London, with 21 reports in New York.

Including January’s figures, there have still been more murders in New York, which has a similar-sized population to London, but British politicians and police are increasingly expressing concern about the higher UK numbers, driven by a surge in knife crime.

Britain’s most senior officer, London police chief Cressida Dick, said gangs were using online platforms to glamorize violence, adding that disputes between young people could escalate within minutes on social media.

“It makes [violence] faster, it makes it harder for people to cool down,” she told the Times. “I’m sure it does rev people up.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Tuesday: “there can be no place in our society for violent crime. The government is determined to do everything it can to break the cycle.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison)

Inspectors analyze toxin used on Russian spy, EU backs Britain

A police notice is attached to screening surrounding a restaurant which was visited by former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia before they were found on a park bench after being poisoned in Salisbury, Britain, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nichol

By Alex Fraser and Peter Nicholls

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog on Monday began examining the poison used to strike down a former Russian double agent in England, in an attack that London blames on Moscow.

Britain says Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who are critically ill in hospital, were targeted with the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent Novichok. It accuses Moscow of stockpiling the toxin and investigating how to use it in assassinations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who easily won another six-year term on Sunday, said the claims were nonsense and that Russia had destroyed all its chemical weapons. While the Kremlin told Britain to back up its assertions or apologize, Britain’s fellow EU members offered it “unqualified solidarity”.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain, was found collapsed along with his daughter on a bench in the small southern city of Salisbury two weeks ago.

The identification of Novichok as the weapon has become the central pillar of Britain’s case for Russia’s culpability. Each has expelled 23 of the other’s diplomats as their relations have sunk to a post-Cold War low.

On Monday, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began running independent tests on samples taken from Salisbury to verify the British analysis, said an OPCW source speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The team from The Hague will meet with officials from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the police to discuss the process for collecting samples, including environmental ones,” Britain’s Foreign Office said.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

“ABSURD DENIALS”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Monday, before meeting his European Union counterparts in Brussels, that Russian denials of responsibility were “increasingly absurd”.

“This is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation. They’re not fooling anybody any more,” Johnson told reporters.

“There is scarcely a country around the table here in Brussels that has not been affected in recent years by some kind of malign or disruptive Russian behavior.”

EU diplomats cautioned there was no immediate prospect of fresh economic sanctions on Russia, but the assembled EU foreign ministers did offer strong verbal support.

“The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible,” said their statement.

They said using a nerve agent for the first time on European soil for 70 years would be a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the OPCW safeguards, and that it represented a “security threat to us all”.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and Robin Emmott and Alistair MacDonald in Brussels; Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey)

UK’s May says ‘highly likely’ Russia behind nerve attack on spy

Members of the emergency services wearing protective suits work at a site in Winterslow, near Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Alistair Smout and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday it was “highly likely” that Moscow was responsible for the poisoning in England of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a military-grade nerve agent.

May told parliament that either the Russian state was directly responsible for the poisoning or it had allowed the nerve agent to get into the hands of others. London has given Russia until Wednesday to explain its use.

British officials had identified the substance as being part of the Novichok group of nerve agents which were developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and 1980s, May said.

“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” May said, calling the attack a “reckless and despicable act.”

Russia’s foreign ministry hit back immediately, saying May’s comments were a “circus show” and part of a political information campaign against Russia.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration stood by America’s “closest ally”.

“The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage,” Sanders said. “The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”

Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, have been in hospital in a critical condition since being found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the city of Salisbury on March 4.

Relations between Britain and Russia have been strained since the murder in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

On Monday, May said the latest poisoning took place “against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” and that Britain was ready to take “much more extensive measures” against Russia than in the past.

Russia’s ambassador to London has been summoned to explain to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson how the nerve agent came to have been used.

“On Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state,” May said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off a question about the affair while visiting a grain center in southern Russia, saying British authorities should first “get to the bottom of things”, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent wrote on Twitter.

Russian state TV accused Britain of poisoning Skripal as part of a special operation designed to spoil Russia’s hosting of the soccer World Cup this summer.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Skripal worked for British intelligence and the attack happened in Britain so it was not a matter for the Russian government.

A British policeman who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition, police said.

Skripal is a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence who was convicted of passing secrets to Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency and later exchanged in a spy swap.

The chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat, said Russia’s so-called oligarchs, who have amassed fortunes during Putin’s 18-year rule, should be denied entry to the luxuries of London and the West.

The British capital has been dubbed “Londongrad” due to the large quantities of Russian money that have poured in since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

May last year said Putin was seeking to undermine the West and the international order by meddling in elections, and promised to ensure corrupt money did not flow into Britain from Russia.

A British public inquiry found the 2006 killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy – a former KGB bodyguard who later became a member of the Russian parliament.

Cordons remained in place in the center of Salisbury and some police investigators wore full chemical and biological suits. The army was later deployed to help remove items from the scene.

Health officials said there was no wider risk to public health.

Jenny Harries, deputy medical director at Public Health England, suggested members of the public who had visited the same restaurant and pub as Skripal and his daughter on March 4 should wash their clothes, clean phones and bags with baby wipes and wash items such as jewelry and spectacles with warm water and detergent.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Jonathan Shenfield and Alex Fraser in Salisbury, England; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

Putin: UK should ‘get to bottom’ of spy attack then we’ll talk

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an interview with NBC's journalist Megyn Kelly in Kaliningrad, Russia March 2, 2018. Picture taken March 2, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Britain should work out what happened to a former Russian spy struck down by nerve gas in southern England before talking to Russia, a BBC reporter said on social media.

Former double agent 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 southern English city of Salisbury.

“Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this,” BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg quoted Putin as saying when asked about the alleged poisoning.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)