Russia says ‘not guilty’ of ex-spy poisoning

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MOSCOW (AFP) – Moscow denied yesterday that it was behind the poisoning of a former double agent after Britain gave a midnight deadline for an explanation on how a Russian-made nerve agent was used in the attack.

“Russia is not guilty”, said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in an English city on March 4.

The US, NATO and the European Union have all backed Britain in the deepening diplomatic crisis.

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Mr Lavrov added that Russia was “ready to cooperate”, but said Britain had rejected its requests for “access” to the nerve agent samples.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the poisoning, and gave Moscow until midnight to answer the accusations.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the attack was the “first use of nerve agent on the continent of Europe since the end of the Second World War”.

Ms May has said that her government was considering a British version of the US “Magnitsky Act”, which was adopted in 2012 to punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations.

Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter Ms Yulia, 33, remain in a critical condition in hospital after being found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the city of Salisbury.

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Ms May told British lawmakers that Moscow had previously used a group of nerve agents known as Novichok, had a history of state-sponsored assassinations and viewed defectors such as Mr Skripal as legitimate targets.

She demanded Moscow disclose details of its development of the Novichok nerve agents programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The chemical weapons watchdog said that it was “extremely worrying that chemical agents are still being used.”

Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who worked on the Novichok programme and now lives in the US, was quoted as saying that the nerve agent’s effects were “brutal”.

“These people are gone – the man and his daughter. Even if they survive they will not recover.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington has “full confidence” in the British investigation.

For its part, the European Union is united in “unwavering” solidarity with Britain on the poisoning case.

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