Monday 14 October 2019

'Frantic' activity seen at Russian embassy during Novichok attack

Wanted: Alexander Mishkin, left, and Anatoly Chepiga are sought by UK police. Photo: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire. Photo: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire
Wanted: Alexander Mishkin, left, and Anatoly Chepiga are sought by UK police. Photo: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire. Photo: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

Lizzie Dearden

"Frantic and unprecedented" movement around the Russian embassy in London was monitored by intelligence agencies around the Salisbury attack, it has emerged.

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ reportedly investigated "unusual" activity in the days before and after Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with Novichok a year ago.

"The intelligence agencies have been investigating unusual and increased activity at the Russian embassy in Kensington in the days leading up to and after the attack on the Skripals," a security source told the Press Association.

The source, who has knowledge of the investigation, said lines of inquiry included looking at "frantic and unprecedented" movements observed at the time, adding: "As would be expected, the UK security services have eyes on known and undeclared foreign intelligence operatives."

In the wake of the attack, which took place in Salisbury on March 4, 2018, the observations were "deemed to be significant and of interest", it is understood.

The Kremlin has continued to deny any involvement in the poisoning, which later caused the death of mother-of-three Dawn Sturgess.

Police charged two alleged GRU agents - Alexander Mishkin, also known as Alexander Petrov, and Anatoly Chepiga, also known as Ruslan Boshirov - with the attempted assassination of Mr Skripal in September.

Earlier this month, researchers identified a third suspect, fellow GRU operative Denis Sergeev, who travelled to Britain under the cover identity Sergey Fedotov at the time of the nerve agent attack.

The source did not rule out the possibility of there being more suspects and said inquiries were "not limited to the suspects already publicly declared".

A police investigation continues and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has said her officers will "never give up" trying to bring the culprits to justice.

The report came on the one-year anniversary of the poisoning, as UK Prime Minister Theresa May visited Wiltshire.

She said Salisbury was emerging "from the shadow cast by the use of chemical weapons on the streets of our country", after local businesses were badly affected by the attack and decontamination work that finished last week.

"My thoughts today are very much with the victims, their friends and families, both in Salisbury, Amesbury and farther afield," Mrs May said. "They have shown remarkable strength, resilience and fortitude in the last year and I have no doubt will continue to do so."

Downing Street's official Twitter account posted the tribute using a photo of Bath, instead of Salisbury. A spokesperson blamed "human error" for the mistake, which was later corrected.

Police believe Novichok was smeared on the door of Mr Skripal's house on the morning of March 4, and the former Russian agent and his daughter collapsed in central Salisbury hours later after going for lunch.

A counterfeit perfume bottle containing the nerve agent was then picked up by local resident Charlie Rowley in June.

He gave it to his partner, Ms Sturgess, as a present and she fell ill at his Amesbury home after applying the substance directly to her wrists.

The mother-of-three died in hospital days later, while Mr Rowley, the Skripals and a police officer recovered following hospital treatment.

Ms Sturgess's son, Ewan Hope, has written a letter to Vladimir Putin appealing for him to hand over the alleged assassins.

Chepiga and Mishkin are subject to Interpol red notices and European Arrest Warrants, but they returned to Russia on the day of the attack and the prospect of them leaving the country or being extradited appears slim.

"British police believe at least two Russian citizens were responsible for her death but it appears they are being protected by your state," Mr Hope's letter read. "I am appealing to you as a human being to allow our officers to question these men about my mother's murder. The least she deserves is justice." (© Independent News Service)

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