Novichok appeared in blood test of second UK police officer in 2018

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand on duty outside Sergei Skripal's home in Salisbury, Britain, July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON (Reuters) – British police who investigated a 2018 Novichok poisoning that was blamed on Russia said traces of the deadly nerve agent have since been found in a blood sample taken from a second officer at the time.

Police said the officer received medical treatment and returned to duties shortly after they responded to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian double agent and his daughter who were found slumped on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury.

The attack triggered a sequence of events which ended with one person dead and a deep strain on the West’s relations with Russia. Another officer, Nick Bailey, fell seriously ill at the time before eventually recovering.

Both Skripals have made a slow recovery.

The police said the poisoning of the second officer had not originally appeared in tests at the time but showed up when the sample was tested by a different method. They said officers were continuing to review the case.

Britain has blamed the attack on two agents from Russia’s GRU military intelligence who visited the city. Russia has denied any involvement.

(Reporting by Kate Holton; 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)

Chemical weapons team to begin assigning blame for Syrian attacks

FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pictured in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The global chemical weapons watchdog will in February begin to assign blame for attacks with banned munitions in Syria’s war, using new powers approved by member states but opposed by Damascus and its key allies Russia and Iran.

The agency was handed the new task in response to an upsurge in the use of chemical weapons in recent years, notably in the Syrian conflict, where scores of attacks with sarin and chlorine have been carried out by Syrian forces and rebel groups, according to a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation.

A core team of 10 experts charged with apportioning blame for poison gas attacks in Syria will be hired soon, Fernando Arias, the new head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told the Foreign Press Association of the Netherlands on Tuesday.

The Syria team will be able to look into all attacks previously investigated by the OPCW, dating back to 2014.

The OPCW was granted additional powers to identify individuals and institutions responsible for attacks by its 193 member states at a special session in June. The decision was supported by the United States and European Union but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, and their allies, highlighting deep political division at the agency.

“The mandate is to identify the perpetrators of crimes committed with chemical weapons, but the OPCW is not a court or the police”, and will refer cases to U.N. organizations with powers to punish those responsible, Arias said.

The expert team will “be in charge of identifying the perpetrators for Syria in the first stage”, Arias said, and might later be expanded to look at attacks globally.

The June decision followed attacks with other chemical weapons. In Salisbury, England, a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in March with the military-grade nerve agent novichok, and the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated in Malaysia with VX in February 2017.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Salisbury poisoning suspect named as a Russian colonel by UK media

Russian military representatives pose in front of the memorial wall with Anatoliy Chepiga as the last name under the Gold Star honor list at the Far-Eastern Military Command Academy in Blagoveshensk, Russia May 24, 2017. Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – The real identity of one of the men wanted by Britain for the Salisbury nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter is Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, according to media reports on Wednesday which said he was a decorated Russian colonel.

Earlier this month, British prosecutors charged two Russians – Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – with attempted murder for the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in the southern English city in March but said they believed the suspects had been using aliases to enter Britain.

The Daily Telegraph and the BBC said Boshirov’s real name was Chepiga, citing investigative reporting by Bellingcat, a website which covers intelligence matters. Two European security sources familiar with the Skripal investigation said the details were accurate.

FILE PHOTO: Ruslan Boshirov, who was formally accused of attempting to murder former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, is seen on CCTV at Gatwick Airport on March 2, 2018 in an image handed out by the Metropolitan Police in London, Britain September 5, 2018. Metroplitan Police handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Ruslan Boshirov, who was formally accused of attempting to murder former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, is seen on CCTV at Gatwick Airport on March 2, 2018 in an image handed out by the Metropolitan Police in London, Britain September 5, 2018. Metroplitan Police handout via REUTERS

Russia denies any involvement in the poisoning, and the two men have said they were merely tourists who had flown to London for fun and visited Salisbury to see its cathedral.

The British government knows both their real identities, sources close to the investigation have said.

The Telegraph reported that Chepiga, 39, had served in wars in Chechnya and Ukraine, and was made a Hero of the Russian Federation by decree of President Vladimir Putin in 2014.

The Metropolitan Police, who are investigating the poisoning, and the Foreign Office declined to comment on the report. But British defense minister Gavin Williamson appeared to confirm its veracity on Twitter.

“The true identity of one of the Salisbury suspects has been revealed to be a Russian Colonel. I want to thank all the people who are working so tirelessly on this case,” Williamson said in a tweet, which was later deleted without explanation.

Prime Minister Theresa May did not address the reports directly in a speech to the United Nations in New York, but spoke of “the reckless use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain by agents of the Russian GRU (military intelligence)”.

The Russian Embassy in London was not immediately available to comment. The Kremlin has previously said that the suspects have nothing to do with Putin.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Mark Hosenball, additional reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison and Robin Pomeroy)

U.S. strongly condemns Russia’s poisoning of former spy: White House

By Jeff Mason

BERKLEY HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday the United States strongly condemned Russia’s use of chemical weapons against a former Russian agent in Britain, two days after the U.S. State Department announced sanctions over the move.

“The attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018, was a reckless display of contempt for the universally held norm against chemical weapons,” said a spokesman for the White House National Security Council in an email.

The spokesman said sanctions that the State Department said it would impose by the end of August fulfilled its legal obligations “after determining a foreign government has used chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals or in violation of international law.”

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

President Donald Trump, who is spending the week at his golf property in New Jersey, did not comment on the recent sanctions when asked about them by a reporter on Thursday. Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia despite U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

European countries and the United States have expelled 100 Russian diplomats since that attack, in the toughest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Trump and his advisers have often appeared at odds over how strongly to act against Moscow. In the run-up to a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, U.S. officials repeatedly called out Russia over its “malign” activities, but Trump did not use such language during a news conference with Putin.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

UK police speak to man poisoned with Novichok nerve agent

FILE PHOTO: Forensic investigators, wearing protective suits, emerge from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – Police said on Wednesday they had spoken to the man poisoned with a nerve agent as detectives sought to discover how he and his partner, who died on Sunday, were exposed to Novichok.

Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, fell ill after being exposed to the poison in southwest England, close to where Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked with the same substance in March.

Sturgess, a mother of three, died on Sunday and her death is being treated as murder. However, the hospital treating Rowley said he was no longer in a critical condition and was now conscious.

“Officers from the investigation team have spoken briefly to Charlie and will be looking to further speak with him in the coming days as they continue to try and establish how he and Dawn came to be contaminated with the nerve agent,” London police said in a statement.

“Any contact officers have with Charlie will be done in close consultation with the hospital and his doctors.”

Britain and its allies have blamed Russia for the attack on the Skripals, prompting the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War. Moscow has rejected the accusations and has hit back by expelling Western diplomats.

The Skripals, who have both been discharged from hospital after spending weeks in hospital, fell ill after the poison was applied to the ex-spy’s front door in the city of Salisbury. Sturgess and Rowley were found at a house in Amesbury, 11 km (7 miles) away.

Neil Basu, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer said it might never be possible to definitively establish a link between the death of Sturgess and the poisoning of the Skripals.

He also said police could not guarantee there were no more traces of Novichok, developed by the Soviet military during the Cold War, still in England.

“I would love to be able to stand here and say how we have identified and caught those responsible and how we are absolutely certain there are no traces of nerve agent left anywhere in the county,” Basu said.

“The brutal reality, however, is that I cannot offer you any such assurances or guarantees at this time.”

Basu has previously said that due to the high dose that Sturgess and Rowley received, the hypothesis was they must have handled a contaminated container.

(Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison)

UK police hunt nerve agent container after woman dies

Dawn Sturgess, who has died as a result of Novichok poisoning, is pictured in Salisbury, Britain June 27, 2016, in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook/Dawn Sturgess via REUTERS

By Paul Sandle and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – A woman who died after being poisoned with a nerve agent that also struck a former Russian spy in March must have handled a contaminated item, and tracking it down is key to police investigations, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer said.

FILE PHOTO: Forensic investigators, wearing protective suits, emerge from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Forensic investigators, wearing protective suits, emerge from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

Dawn Sturgess, 44, died on Sunday just over a week after she was exposed to Novichok in southwestern England, a few miles from where Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked with the same poison.

The death of Sturgess, a mother of three, was being treated as a murder, police said.

“This latest horrendous turn of events has only served to strengthen the resolve of our investigation team as we work to identify those responsible for this outrageous, reckless and barbaric act,” counter-terrorism police chief Neil Basu said.

Basu told reporters the priority was to determine how Sturgess and her partner, 45-year-old Charlie Rowley who is critically ill, came across an item contaminated with Novichok, developed by the Soviet military during the Cold War.

Britain and its allies blamed Russia for the attack in March on the Skripals, prompting the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War. Moscow has rejected the accusations and has hit back by expelling Western diplomats.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was appalled and shocked by Sturgess’s death and the interior minister, Sajid Javid, said the “desperately sad news only strengthens our resolve to find out exactly what has happened”.

Javid, who is chairing a meeting of the government’s emergency committee on Monday, has said there were no plans at this stage for further sanctions against Russia.

The Skripals fell ill after the poison was applied to the ex-spy’s front door in the city of Salisbury. Sturgess and Rowley were found at a house in Amesbury, 11 kilometers (7 miles) away.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer stands in front of screening erected behind John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A police officer stands in front of screening erected behind John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

Basu said the severe reaction of Sturgess and Rowley meant they must have received a high dose of Novichok.

“Our hypothesis is that they must have handled a container we are now seeking,” he said. “Our focus and priority at this time is to identify and locate any container that we believe may be the source of the contamination.”

The poisoning of the Skripals was the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon in Europe since World War Two.

Russia has denied any involvement in the Skripal case and suggested the British security services carried out the attack to stoke anti-Moscow hysteria, an assertion London calls absurd.

FATAL TOUCH

Sturgess and Rowley fell ill on June 30. Medical workers initially suspected a drug overdose but tests by the Porton Down military research center showed they had been exposed to Novichok.

Britain has notified the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Sturgess died at Salisbury District Hospital, the same facility that nursed the critically ill Skripals.

Yulia Skripal, Sergei’s daughter, was in a coma for 20 days after she was attacked and was eventually discharged about five weeks after the poisoning. Her father was discharged on May 18.

“The staff here at Salisbury District Hospital worked tirelessly to save Dawn. They did everything they could,” Christine Blanshard, medical director at the hospital said.

Britain’s public health authority acknowledged on Friday the concerns of people living in the area after the two incidents involving Novichok, but said it was confident that the risk to the public remained low.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Andrew MacAskill and Kate Kelland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Skripals poisoned with nerve agent, chemical arms watchdog confirms

FILE PHOTO: Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrive to begin work at the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain, March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Anthony Deutsch and Guy Faulconbridge

THE HAGUE/LONDON (Reuters) – The lethal poison that struck down a former Russian spy and his daughter last month in England was a highly pure type of Novichok nerve agent, the global chemical weapons watchdog concluded on Thursday, backing Britain’s findings.

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in the English cathedral city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain blamed Russia for the poisoning and Prime Minister Theresa May said that the Skripals had been attacked with a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok group of poisons, developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s.

Moscow denied any involvement and suggested Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria, but Britain asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to check samples from Salisbury.

Testing by four laboratories affiliated with the global chemical weapons watchdog confirmed Britain’s findings and showed that the toxic chemical was “of high purity.”

The chemical weapons watchdog did not explicitly name Novichok in its published summary, say where the poison may have come from or assign blame for the attack. But it did confirm Britain’s analysis about the substance that had been used.

“The results of analysis by OPCW-designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical,” the published summary said.

Testing by OPCW laboratories, the details of which were kept confidential, also found the substance used in Salisbury to be of “a high purity”, which supports the British government’s assertion that a state was involved.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

NOVICHOK ATTACK

Russia has said it does not have such nerve agents and President Vladimir Putin said it was nonsense to think that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his daughter. A British police officer was also taken ill after attending the scene.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hailed the chemical watchdog’s findings.

“There can be no doubt what was used and there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record,” Johnson said.

The poisoning of Skripal, a former double agent who settled in Britain in 2010 after being released by Moscow in a spy swap, shows “how reckless Russia is prepared to be”, the head of Britain’s GCHQ spy agency said on Thursday.

Yulia Skripal, who was released from hospital on Monday, said in a statement she was suffering from the effects of the poisoning, while her father remained seriously ill. She said she was declining an offer of assistance from the Russian Embassy. [L8N1RO6G7]

There are several variants of Novichok, a binary weapon containing two less-toxic chemicals that, when mixed, react to produce a poison several times more lethal than sarin or VX.

Russia’s ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, has identified the alleged poison as Novichok A-234, derived from an earlier version known as A-232.

Britain has said the use of such an obscure poison indicates Moscow was either to blame or had lost control over its nerve agents.

“The high purity of the substance will strengthen the UK’s position that the agent was made by a highly proficient team and in a well refined process,” said Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology at Britain’s University of Leeds.

The laboratory results, which came in on Wednesday night, were to be circulated to OPCW member states on Thursday. The results will be debated at an emergency OPCW session next Wednesday, to be convened at Britain’s request.

It is unclear how the OPCW will respond. Its executive council has been unable to take decisions due to splits between the Western powers and Russia that have also prevented it from acting in the wake of ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Yulia Skripal, poisoned with her Russian double-agent father, is getting better

Police officers stand guard outside of the home of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain, March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – The daughter of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal is getting better after spending three weeks in critical condition due to a nerve toxin attack at his home in England, the hospital where she is being treated said on Thursday.

After the first known use of a military-grade nerve agent on European soil since World War Two, Britain blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the attempted murder, and the West has expelled around 130 Russian diplomats.

Russia has denied using Novichok, a nerve agent first developed by the Soviet military, to attack Skripal. Moscow has said it suspects the British secret services are trying to frame Russia to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

British counter-terrorism police said they now believe Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve toxin that had been left on the front door of their home in the genteel English cathedral city of Salisbury.

“I’m pleased to be able to report an improvement in the condition of Yulia Skripal,” Christine Blanshard, Medical Director for Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement.

“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day,” she said.

Her father remained in a critical but stable condition, the hospital said. Last week, a British judge said the Skripals might have suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the attack.

Police said on Thursday they had placed a cordon around a children’s play area near the Skripal’s modest house as a precaution.

Yulia and her 66-year-old father were found slumped on a bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury on March 4.

Britain has blamed the attempted murder on Russia, and expelled 23 Russians it said were spies working under diplomatic cover in retaliation.

Russia, which denies carrying out the attack, responded by throwing out 23 British diplomats. Moscow has since accused the British secret services of trying to frame Russia to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”

The attack on Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain’s MI6 spy service, has plunged Moscow’s relations with the West to a new post-Cold War low.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said late on Wednesday the Kremlin had underestimated the Western response to the attack, which also injured a British policeman.

Johnson told an audience of ambassadors in London that 27 countries had now moved to expel Russian diplomats over Moscow’s suspected involvement.

“These expulsions represent a moment when a feeling has suddenly crystallized, when years of vexation and provocation have worn the collective patience to breaking point, and when across the world – across three continents – there are countries who are willing to say enough is enough,” Johnson said.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Moscow on Thursday Britain was breaking international law by refusing to provide information on Yulia Skripal despite the fact she was a Russian citizen.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was watching closely a media report that Britain might limit London’s role in marketing Russian debt to investors.

Skripal, recruited by British spies while in Spain, ended up in Britain after a Cold War-style spy swap that brought 10 Russian spies captured in the United States back to Moscow in exchange for those accused by Moscow of spying for the West.

His house, which featured a good-luck horseshoe on the front door, was bought for 260,000 pounds ($360,000) in 2011. Skripal was listed as living there under his own name.

Since emerging from the world of high espionage and betrayal, he has lived modestly in the cathedral city of Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he and his daughter were found unconscious on March 4.

In the years since he found refuge in Britain, he lost both a wife and son.

The attack on Skripal has been likened to the killing of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in Britain. Litvinenko, a critic of Putin, died in London in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium 210.

Russia denied any involvement in that killing.

An inquiry led by senior British judge Robert Owen found that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy and another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, carried out the murder of Litvinenko as part of an operation probably directed by Russia’s Federal Security Service.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden and Costas Pitas in London and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Richard Balmforth and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Sparks fly in Moscow as Russia and Britain trade accusations over spy poisoning

FILE PHOTO - Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov speaks on the phone before a session of the Council of Heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Sochi, Russia October 11, 2017.

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Britain accused Moscow on Wednesday of running an assassination program to eliminate its enemies, while Russia said Britain may itself have orchestrated the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England.

In remarkable scenes at a Russian Foreign Ministry event in Moscow attended by dozens of foreign diplomats and broadcast on state TV, the two sides launched sharp allegations against each other over the nerve agent attack.

The attack in Salisbury, England, has plunged ties between London and Moscow into their worst crisis since the Cold War. Britain has blamed Russia for the attack – something Moscow denies – and both have expelled diplomats in the standoff.

Russia had organized Wednesday’s event to explain its stance and lost little time in alleging that Britain itself had either directly or indirectly orchestrated the attack or had allowed “a terrorist attack” to take place on British soil.

“Nobody understands what happened in Salisbury,” Vladimir Yermakov, a diplomat who chaired the event, told foreign diplomats. “Let’s investigate what really happened.”

His own view, he said, was that the poisoning had been a pre-planned action designed to harm Russia.

Emma Nottingham, a British diplomat, countered that London had concluded it was “highly likely” that Moscow stood behind the attempted assassination of the Skripals for four reasons:

“The identification of the chemical agent by our world leading scientists, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent … Russia’s record in conducting state-sponsored assassinations … and our assessment that Russia views defectors as legitimate targets.”

Many ambassadors including those of Britain, France, Germany and the United States, stayed away from the Moscow event, sending more junior officials instead.

But key Western countries criticized Russia and offered Britain their support. Some others, including Sweden and the Czech Republic, publicly complained about Russian accusations that their countries might have been the origin of the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russian GRU military intelligence who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter Yulia have been critically ill since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a public bench in the English cathedral city.

Skripal took refuge in England after being released by Moscow in a spy swap deal involving the exchange of some Russian spies held in the West.

‘ISLAND MENTALITY’

Britain says a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, first developed by the Soviet Union, had been used in the attack.

But Nottingham said Russia had failed to explain how the nerve agent used in the attack had got from Russia to England and why it was running an illegal chemical weapons program.

“Instead, what we’ve seen is a barrage of distortion and disinformation … and attempts to confuse the facts.”

Yermakov said Russia did not understand what was going in British officials’ heads. Talk of the Novichok nerve agent was like something out of a British TV series, he said.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself ?,” Yermakov asked Nottingham. “Pull yourselves away a little bit from your Russophobia and your island mentality.”

He said Moscow had nothing to do with the tragedy and wanted a wider investigation which, he said, meant London should share information and cooperate with Moscow.

Speaking on a visit to Japan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia wanted Britain to tell it where the Skripals were currently located.

Lavrov said Moscow also wanted to know why the British government had accused Russia of responsibility when the police investigation into the Salisbury incident was incomplete.

“Overall there is no doubt that the current British leadership has consciously taken a course to undermine Russian-British relations,” Lavrov said at a news conference with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono in Tokyo, according to a transcript on the Russian foreign ministry website.

“If this will continue in the form of any tangible new anti-Russian actions then of course nobody has canceled the principle of reciprocity. It would be good for everyone and for (the British government) if they stopped getting agitated and calmed down.”

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth)