U.K.'s May Says Nerve Attackers Were Russian Military Spies

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May said the U.K. has intelligence that “almost certainly” shows that the Kremlin authorized the attempted murder of a former spy and the use of a Novichok nerve agent on British soil.

May told lawmakers on Wednesday that two Russian nationals charged over the attack on Sergei Skripal are agents in Russia’s GRU -- its military foreign intelligence service. She hinted strongly the U.K. would retaliate, using “all the tools in our national security apparatus.”

“The GRU is a highly disciplined organization with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation,” May said. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”

Police named Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov as the aliases of the two key suspects in the attack on Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English town of Salisbury in March. British and European arrest warrants have been issued for the pair, though the government will not seek extradition as Russia’s constitution forbids it.

A British woman, Dawn Sturgess, subsequently died in July after coming into contact with the same nerve agent used against the Skripals. A mother of three, she had sprayed the contents of the bottle -- which had been found by her partner, Charlie Rowley, in a charity bin in Salisbury -- onto her wrists, police said.

‘Sickening, Despicable’

“This was a sickening and despicable act, it left four people fighting for their lives and one innocent woman dead,” May said in Parliament. “We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened and they have replied with obfuscation and lies.”

The benchmark MOEX Russia stock index erased gains immediately after the announcement, before trading up 0.1 percent at 2,338.30 as of 3:58 p.m. in Moscow. The pound fell to a two-week low against the dollar as the news fueled concern the nation’s already tense relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin will worsen.

When asked if the attack was directly authorized by Putin, May said: “It is almost certain a decision of this level was taken outside of the GRU and at a senior level.” The U.K. is reviewing all so-called tier-one visas issued to Russians, according to her spokesman, James Slack. She also updated U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday night on the latest developments.

The U.K.’s counter-terrorism police chief, Neil Basu, told reporters the two Russians entered the U.K. on an Aeroflot flight on March 2, departing March 4. They used a counterfeit Nina Ricci perfume bottle to transport the weapons-grade poison.

London Stay

They stayed in London while visiting the U.K., Basu said, urging anyone who had also visited the CityStay Hotel in Bow Road to contact them. They traveled by train to Salisbury. There is no risk to members of the public who traveled on the same flights, trains or stayed in the same room, he said.

Relations between the U.K. and Russia, already frosty, were plunged into crisis over the incident in March, and Britain persuaded allies around the world to conduct coordinated expulsions of more than 150 Russian diplomats, prompting tit-for-tat retaliation from Moscow.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the names and photos released Wednesday don’t mean anything, and called on the U.K. Authorities to provide evidence for their allegations to Russian law enforcement, according to the state-run Tass news agency.

“We again call on the British side to shift from public accusations and informational manipulation to practical cooperation between law-enforcement agencies,” Tass quoted her as saying.

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters he didn’t recognize the two names issued by the U.K. and that it’s not clear “what kind of signal the British side is sending.”

CCTV Images

U.K.'s May Says Nerve Attackers Were Russian Military Spies

U.K. police released multiple CCTV images of the suspects in their forties, appealing to witnesses to come forward with more information about their real identities and movements. Basu said the specially adapted perfume bottle was used to spray nerve agent on the Skripals’ front door, calling it “the perfect delivery method,” before the pink box was abandoned.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed Tuesday that “the same toxic chemical” was found in samples from both the Skripal and Sturgess incidents. Moscow’s representative to the OPCW reiterated that Russia had nothing to do with the attacks, official news agencies reported.

“We do not believe Dawn and Charlie were deliberately targeted, but became victims as a result of the recklessness in which such a toxic nerve agent was disposed of,” Basu said. “We know that Novichok was applied to the Skripals’ front door in an area that is accessible to the public, which also endangered the lives of members of the public and emergency service responders.”

Basu said police couldn’t yet guarantee that all of the Novichok had been cleared from Salisbury, urging the public not to pick up anything not belonging to them. Chief Medical officer Professor Sally Davies told the same briefing that symptoms of the agent appeared within 12 hours.

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