Tuesday 22 May 2018

'A brazen attempt to murder...on our soil' - May gives Russia ultimatum over spy nerve agent attack

British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Raynor in London

Theresa May has given Vladimir Putin until midnight tonight to explain the use of a Russian-made nerve agent in the Salisbury attack or face retaliation for "a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil".

The British Prime Minister told MPs yesterday that the Government had concluded it was "highly likely that Russia was responsible" for the attempted murder of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, last weekend.

And she revealed that an illegal "weapons-grade" nerve agent known as Novichok was used in what she described as "an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom".

Novichok is one of the deadliest chemical weapons ever developed, with some variants being eight times more lethal than VX, the chemical used by North Korea to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mrs May accused the Kremlin of being "intent on dismantling the international rules-based order" and called on Britain's Nato allies to back "extensive measures" to punish Russia.

The allies are being sounded out about support for invoking Nato's Article 5 principle of common defence, which states that an attack on one member of the organisation is an attack on all 29. It has only been invoked once before, after the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001.

Mrs May said: "Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at...Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia's record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal."

Mrs May said there were only "two plausible explanations" for the attack: "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others".

She added: "I share the impatience of this House and the country at large to bring those responsible to justice - and to take the full range of appropriate responses against those who would act against our country in this way."

The White House offered its "fullest condemnation" over the attack and said the US would stand by "our closest ally". Mrs May will consider Russia's response tomorrow at a meeting of the UK National Security Council, which includes senior Cabinet ministers and the spy chiefs of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

She 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."

Calls for a boycott by England of the Russia 2018 World Cup gathered pace as Mrs May said: "There can be no question of business as usual with Russia."

MPs warned England fans would be in danger of retaliatory attacks if they travelled to the World Cup, and Russia's state broadcaster accused Britain of poisoning Mr Skripal and his daughter as a ploy to force a boycott of the competition.

In Salisbury the focus of the investigation shifted to Mr Skripal's BMW car, in which experts now believe the nerve agent was planted. A recovery van that had been used to transport his car from a parking space in Salisbury last week was yesterday removed from a village by military personnel in protective suits.

The Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, was summoned to the UK Foreign Office yesterday where Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, expressed the "outrage" of the British public.

Irish Independent

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