Russia offer on poison probe ‘perverse’

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Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia

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EPA/ Yulia Skripal/Facebook

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Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok

The UK has described as “perverse” a Russian proposal for a joint inquiry into the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in England last month.

The comment came from the UK team as it attended an emergency meeting of the international chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, on the issue.

Russia, which called the meeting, wants the UK to share evidence.

The UK says Russia was almost certainly to blame for the attack but Moscow denies any involvement.

The British government says a military-grade Novichok nerve agent of a type developed by Russia was used in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, southern England, on 4 March.

The incident has caused a major diplomatic fallout, with the expulsion of about 130 Russian diplomats by the UK and its allies being met by counter-expulsions by Moscow.

What is the OPCW meeting about?

As a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Russia has the right to request an emergency meeting of the body and it is taking place at The Hague.

Among other things, it wants to know what kind of evidence the UK has provided to the OPCW, which inspectors visited the site of the attack in Salisbury, who they met and where the samples are being analysed.

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A team believed to be from the OPCW carry out tests in Salisbury

But its offer of a joint investigation was dismissed by the UK.

In a tweet, the UK team at The Hague said: “Russia’s proposal for a joint, UK/Russian investigation into the Salisbury incident is perverse.

“It is a diversionary tactic, and yet more disinformation designed to evade the questions the Russian authorities must answer.”

The OPCW expects to receive the results of its own independent laboratory tests within a week.

It does not have the power to attribute blame, but it could ask the Kremlin to grant its inspectors access to former Soviet Union production facilities to check all of their chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed.

Earlier, Russian foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin said in Moscow that the poisoning was a “grotesque provocation… that was crudely concocted by the British and American security services” to implicate Russia.

“It is appropriate to say that the dark times of the Cold War are back,” he said.

Did the UK already have a sample of Novichok?

Analysis by the BBC’s David Shukman

The only way that scientists can be totally sure who made the Novichok agent is to compare it with another sample of the substance made in the same lab. That’s what happened when Sarin was used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and more recently by President Assad in Syria.

Experts already knew which clues to look for, and that allowed them to lay the blame definitively. Novichok is much less well known. The traces of it gathered in Salisbury will have been put through detailed scientific screening and that would reveal the ingredients of the chemical and maybe also its basic structure.

That could be matched with whatever is known about Novichok, maybe from lab notes handed over by defectors. And for Porton Down to describe it as “military grade” suggests a sophisticated state producer, not an amateur, though that itself is not categorical proof of Russian involvement.

That leaves another scenario in this secretive world of smoke and mirrors – that Britain did already have a sample of Novichok and was able to compare it to the agent used on the Skripals but does not want to reveal the fact, to protect a valuable source of intelligence.

Is the UK under pressure over the inquiry?

Questions arose about whether the UK had been too quick to point the finger at Russia after the UK’s Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used in Salisbury.

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Porton Down dismissed Russian claims the nerve agent might have come from the laboratory

The laboratory, which had previously identified the Novichok nerve agent, said it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor” but said it was not its job to say where it was manufactured.

Porton Down’s chief executive Gary Aitkenhead dismissed Russian claims it might have come from the UK military laboratory.

On Wednesday, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox strongly defended the UK’s stance.

He said Britain knew that Russia had been stockpiling the nerve agent and that it had been investigating ways to deliver it.

He added: “We know that Russia has previously been willing to poison outside its borders… We know it regards ex-agents as being candidates for assassination. It’s not the UK alone that came to this conclusion. It’s a conclusion that’s backed up by our allies around the world.”

The German government on Wednesday said it still shared the UK’s view that there was a high likelihood of Russian responsibility.

A statement from the EU reiterated its solidarity with the UK and said it was imperative Russia responded to the UK’s “legitimate questions”.

How are the Skripals doing?

The BBC understands Miss Skripal, 33, is now conscious and talking. Salisbury District Hospital has said her father, 66, remains critically ill but stable.

Mr Aitkenhead said he had been advising those treating the Skripals.

“Unfortunately this is an extremely toxic substance. There is not, as far as we know, any antidote that you can use to negate the effects of it,” he added.

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