Britain spy case: Watchdog rejects Russia nerve agent claim

2018-04-19 22:22
This is an image of the daughter of former Russian Spy Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal taken from Yulia Skipal's Facebook account. (Yulia Skripal, Facebook via AP)

This is an image of the daughter of former Russian Spy Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal taken from Yulia Skipal's Facebook account. (Yulia Skripal, Facebook via AP)

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The head of the global chemical watchdog agency on Wednesday rejected Russian claims that traces of a second nerve agent were discovered in the English city where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.

Britain blames Russia for the attack, which it says was carried out by smearing a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok on a door handle at Sergei Skripal's house in Salisbury. Moscow denies involvement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday that Moscow received confidential information from the laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, that analysed samples from the site of the March 4 poisoning in Salisbury.

He said the analysis – done at the request of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – indicated that samples contained BZ nerve agent and its precursor. He said BZ was part of the chemical arsenals of the US, Britain and other NATO countries, while the Soviet Union and Russia never developed the agent.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu told a meeting on Wednesday of the organisation's Executive Council that a BZ precursor known as 3Q "was contained in the control sample prepared by the OPCW Lab in accordance with the existing quality control procedures".

He added "it has nothing to do with the samples collected by the OPCW team in Salisbury".

Breach of treaty

Britain's representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Peter Wilson, slammed the Russian foreign minister's comments as a breach of the treaty outlawing chemical weapons.

"The thing for me that was particularly alarming about Lavrov's statement is, first of all, the OPCW goes to enormous lengths to make sure that the identity of laboratories is confidential and, second of all, either the Russians are hacking the laboratories or they are making stuff up," he said. "Either way, that is a violation of the confidentiality of the Chemical Weapons Convention."

In a summary of its report last week, the OPCW didn't name Novichok as the nerve agent used but it confirmed "the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury".

Wilson told reporters that the OPCW "confirmed that they found what we found, and that is a Novichok".

Russia's representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Alexander Shulgin, repeated Moscow's denials and accused Britain of a string of lies.

"For now, I will only say one thing: The claim that the Technical Secretariat confirmed that this chemical points to its Russian origin is an outright lie," he said in a statement posted on his embassy's website. "The report itself does not say a single word about the name 'Novichok;' the CWC simply does not contain such a concept."

Shulgin at a later news conference accused Britain of trying to turn the executive council meeting into "a kangaroo court" and suggested that Britain could have arranged the attack on the Skripals to counter domestic tensions over Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

"Perhaps the government of Theresa May, weakened by the troubles associated with Brexit, needs society to rally around this government," he said.

Shulgin also said Russia wouldn't accept the results of any report on the matter unless it gets full access to investigation details, consular access to the Skripals, and participation in the probe by Russian experts.

The envoy also spent several minutes of digression on Britain's alleged "very impressive experience" of using poison abroad, including involvement in the 1916 poisoning of Rasputin, a self-styled mystic who held great influence with Czar Nicholas II's wife.

Evidence of Russian involvement

The Skripals were hospitalised for weeks in critical condition. Yulia Skripal was discharged last week from Salisbury District Hospital, where her father continues to be treated.

Wilson told the meeting that London continues to believe evidence points to Russian involvement in the attempted assassination.

'We believe that only Russia had the technical means, operational experience and motive to target the Skripals," Wilson said.

Wilson warned the Chemical Weapons Convention was being undermined by a growing use of nerve agents and other poisons, mentioning the 2017 assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother, in addition to the Salisbury attack and the use of poison gas in Syria and Iraq.

"It is being continually violated," Wilson told reporters.

He said the convention would be strengthened if all nations fully declared any stockpiles they still have. Member states are supposed to declare all their chemical weapons stocks upon joining the OPCW and destroy them.

The OPCW and Russia last year celebrated the destruction of the country's final declared stocks.

"Russia clearly has chemical weapons they are not declaring and they need to do that," Wilson said.

The antagonism between Britain and Russia played out again in the UN Security Council on Wednesday afternoon after UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu briefed members on the OPCW findings.

Britain's UN ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russian responsibility for the attack was the only "plausible explanation". She dismissed several Russian allegations that others were responsible, including one accusing Britain for drugging Yulia Skripal. She said the claim was "more than fanciful – this is outlandish".

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the council heard "the same lies" and "mendacious, baseless and slanderous" allegations that the UK has been putting forward since the attack. He said the OPCW report only confirmed that the substance could be produced in a well-equipped lab, stressing that such labs exist in the UK, US and a host of other countries.

Nebenzia said Russia agreed with Britain on one point: "There will be no impunity and the perpetrators will be held responsible."

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