Saturday 17 November 2018

Skripal recovery will shed light on poison attack

Victims: Yulia and Sergei Skripal are set to speak to investigators. Photo by REX (9452103m)
Victims: Yulia and Sergei Skripal are set to speak to investigators. Photo by REX (9452103m)

Kim Sengupta

The secrets of what lay behind the first nerve agent attack in Europe since World War II are likely to be revealed with Sergei and Yulia Skripal expected to speak to investigators in the coming days after making a remarkable recovery.

The former MI6 spy and his daughter may soon be in a position to reveal to investigators the chain and time of events leading up to their poisoning in Salisbury a month ago - and who may have carried out it out.

Yesterday, the Russian Embassy in London requested a meeting between its ambassador and UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson over the poisoning.

An embassy spokesperson said it was "high time" for a meeting to discuss the investigation, as well as a "whole range of bilateral issues".

Current interaction between the Russian Embassy and the UK was "utterly unsatisfactory", they said.

A UK statement confirmed it had received the meeting request, and said: "It's over three weeks since we asked Russia to engage constructively and answer a number of questions relating to the attempted assassinations of Mr Skripal and his daughter.

"Now, after failing in their attempts in the UN and international chemical weapons watchdog this week and with the victims' condition improving, they seem to be pursuing a different diversionary tactic."

Despite the head of Porton Down, the military research centre, saying there is no known antidote to the military grade novichok, which Theresa May's government has said was used in the attempted murders, both now appear to be out of danger.

The timing of their interviews will be dependent on advice of the specialist medical staff treating them, but the police and security agencies are optimistic that the answers to what took place are likely to emerge soon. Salisbury District Hospital, where the pair have been treated since being struck down last month, said Sergei Skripal was "responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and no longer in a critical condition".

Yulia Skripal, who had issued a public statement through the police saying she "woke up a week ago and am glad my strength is growing daily", will be questioned before her father unless his condition improves dramatically. Yulia Skripal supposedly spoke on the telephone with her cousin Viktoria in Moscow who was due to visit her in hospital. During the call Yulia told Viktoria she may not be given a visa, and yesterday the UK authorities confirmed that the visa application has been refused. This led to an immediate charge of further cover-up by Russian officials who have already accused the UK of carrying out the attack.

A UK Home Office spokesman said: "We have refused a visitor visa application from Viktoria Skripal on the grounds that her application did not comply with the immigration rules."

Russian state television earlier this week broadcasted a telephone conversation between Viktoria and her cousin, in which Yulia allegedly said "everything is fine" and her father was "sleeping".

Dr Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital, said speculation about when the two could be released from hospital was "just that - speculation".

The Russian Embassy said it hoped the improvement in the Skripals' health will "contribute to the investigation of the crime perpetrated against them".

Dan Kaszeta, a security and chemical defence consultant, said nerve agents are quick acting if they are inhaled, which did not appear to be the case with the Skripals. "We do not know the narrative of that afternoon in detail. For example, Sergei, what did you touch and when did you touch it?" he said. Now that Ms Skripal in particular is known to be recovering and talking, her insight into what happened will be "extremely important", Mr Kaszeta added.

The development came as Donald Trump heightened diplomatic tensions further by announcing sanctions against seven Russian oligarchs with ties to Vladimir Putin for "malign activity" around the world.

Meanwhile, Russia is demanding an explanation over the deaths of two guinea pigs and a cat, which was found in a distressed state at Mr Skripal's house before being put down.

The Russian Embassy said: "Regarding the dead guinea pigs and the malnourished cat, it is said unofficially that they were taken to the Porton Down facility and incinerated there. But it remains unclear if their remains were ever tested for toxic substances, which would constitute useful evidence, and, if not, why such a decision was made.

"Overall, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the animals have been disposed of as an inconvenient piece of evidence."


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