Putin Says U.K. Hit Suspects Aren't Agents, Should Go Public

(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected British allegations that the Russians suspected of carrying out a nerve-agent attack on a former spy in the U.K. are intelligence agents and called on them to go public, taking a defiant tone in his first official comments on the charges.

“We know who they are. We found them,” Putin told an economic forum in Vladivostok. “There’s nothing unusual or criminal there, I assure you. We’ll see soon enough,” he said. “They are civilians, of course,” he added.

“I would like to appeal to them, so they’ll hear it today. Let them come forward to speak to any media,” Putin said. Hours later, Russian state television said it had contacted one of the men and he said he might speak publicly next week.

The U.K. on Sept. 5 identified two men it said were Russian military-intelligence officers who carried out the attack on Sergei Skripal, a former spy, and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury in March. British officials said the suspects had escaped to Russia and that the operation likely was authorized at the highest levels in Moscow, a conclusion that was backed by the U.S. and other allies.

Russia has provided “nothing but obfuscation and lies” about the case, James Slack, spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said when asked about Putin’s comments. “I have seen nothing to suggest that has changed.”

British authorities said the agents were using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov and had been caught on surveillance cameras in London and Salisbury before and after applying the nerve agent to the doorknob of Skripal’s home.

“These men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service who used a devastatingly toxic chemical weapon on the streets of our country,” Slack said.

Russia has denied any role in the poisonings. Rossiya 24 state television reported Petrov told its reporter that he wouldn’t comment at present but possibly might do so next week.

Deepening Chill

The Skripal attack deepened the chill in relations between Moscow and the West, with the U.K. and its allies expelling dozens of Russian diplomats in retaliation and the U.S. also imposing sanctions on Russia over the case.

Putin’s stance Wednesday echoed the Kremlin’s approach to the last case where his spies were accused of killing former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 with radioactive polonium. British authorities blamed a Russian agent, Andrei Lugovoi, for the murder. Moscow refused to extradite Lugovoi, who denied the allegations. He went on to become a member of parliament and regular fixture on state television. In 2017, the U.S. imposed sanctions on him for his role in the case.

With the appeal to the Skripal suspects to come forward, the Kremlin is showing it has “an alternative version that it intends to present,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a Moscow political consultant. “It’s probably some kind of game to distract attention.”

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