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By Guy Faulconbridge and Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters)

Britain, the United States, Germany and France jointly called on Russia on Thursday to explain a military-grade nerve toxin attack in England on a former Russian double agent, which they said threatened Western security

After the first known offensive use of such a weapon on European soil since World War Two, Britain has pinned the blame on Moscow and given 23 Russians who it said were spies working under diplomatic cover at the London embassy a week to leave.

 

Police officers walk past the consular section of Russia's embassy in London
Police officers walk past the consular section of Russia’s embassy in London, Britain, March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

 

Moscow has denied any involvement in the poisoning. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused London of behaving in a “boorish” way and suggested this was partly because of problems Britain faces over its planned exit from the European Union next year.

Russia has refused Britain’s demands to explain how Novichok, a nerve agent first developed by the Soviet military, was used against Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, who were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre on March 4 in the southern English city of Salisbury.

 

Security cameras are seen, and a flag flies outside the consular section of Russia's embassy in London
Security cameras are seen, and a flag flies outside the consular section of Russia’s embassy in London, Britain, March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

 

“We call on Russia to address all questions related to the attack,” U.S. President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May said in their joint statement.

“It is an assault on UK sovereignty,” the leaders said. “It threatens the security of us all.”

While the statement signals a more coordinated response from Britain’s closest allies, it lacked any details about specific measures the West would take if Russia failed to comply.

 

BREACH OF CONVENTION

The Western leaders said the use of the toxin was a clear breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention and international law.

They called on Russia to provide a complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague.

 

A security guard stands at the gates of the consular section of Russia's embassy in London
A security guard stands at the gates of the consular section of Russia’s embassy in London, Britain, March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

 

Russia has repeatedly asked Britain to supply a sample of the nerve agent. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said neither Russia nor the Soviet Union had run a programme to develop Novichok.

Separately, Washington on Thursday slapped sanctions on two of Russia’s biggest intelligence agencies, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the GRU military intelligence service, in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and malicious cyber attacks.

 

 

Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter are critically ill.

A British policeman who was also poisoned when he went to help them is in a serious but stable condition.

May has directly accused President Vladimir Putin, poised to win a fourth term in an election on Sunday, of being behind the attack. In Washington, Trump said: “It looks like the Russians were behind it.”

 

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