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Britain

UK lab says it cannot tell if nerve agent used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal was Russian-made

UK lab chief Gary Aitkenhead said analysts had identified the nerve agent as military-grade Novichok, but they ‘have not identified the precise source’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 2:21am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 5:14am

The British military facility analysing the nerve agent used to poison former spy Sergei Skripal said on Tuesday that it could not prove the substance was made in Russia.

Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Porton Down defence laboratory, told Britain’s Sky News that analysts had identified the substance as military-grade Novichok, the word used for a category of nerve agents developed in Soviet times.  

But he added, “We have not identified the precise source”.  

“It is our job to provide the scientific evidence of what this particular nerve agent is. We identified that it is from this particular family and that it is a military grade, but it is not our job to say where it was manufactured,” Aitkenhead said. 

He added that “extremely sophisticated methods” were needed to create the nerve agent, and that was “something only in the capabilities of a state actor”. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday expressed hope that a meeting of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog agency would put an end to the matter.

“We hope that during those discussions a full stop will be placed on (the issue of) what happened” to Skripal, Putin said ahead of the meeting on Wednesday of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  

The OPCW will meet to discuss Britain’s allegations that Russia was responsible for the poisoning, according to documents released on Tuesday.  

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Putin argued that experts have said that such nerve agents could have been made in some 20 countries.  

Putin reaffirmed that Russia wanted to take part in the investigation, noting that the victims of the poisoning – Skripal and his daughter Yulia – were both Russian nationals. 

“We have an interest in a full investigation and want Russia to be allowed to take part in that investigation,” he said. 

Skripal, a former double agent who has lived in Britain since a spy swap in 2010, and his daughter have been in hospital since March 4 after the poisoning that London and its major Western allies have blamed on Russia. 

The first use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II has chilled Moscow’s relations with the West, as both sides have expelled scores of diplomats.  

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Britain has also suspended high-level diplomatic contact with Moscow.  

Moscow has denied any involvement in the incident.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday suggesting that the British government may be behind the poisoning to distract attention from problems around Brexit. 

Aitkenhead would not comment on whether Porton Down had developed or keeps stocks of Novichok, but he dismissed claims the agent used to poison the Skripals had come from the site. 

“There is no way anything like that could have come from us or left the four walls of our facility,” he said. 

The OPCW said Russia had asked for the upcoming meeting.  

The request came after Moscow received and analysed samples of the Novichok agent used in the attack. 

“We hope to discuss the whole matter and call on Britain to provide every possible element of evidence they might have in their hands,” Russia’s ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov, told reporters ahead of the OPCW meeting. 

“Russia is interested in establishing the whole truth of the matter,” he said. 

But Britain’s foreign ministry accused Russia of requesting the meeting to undermine the organisation’s investigation. 

“This Russian initiative is yet again another diversionary tactic, intended to undermine the work of the OPCW in reaching a conclusion,” the ministry said in a statement.