EU backs Britain by blaming Russia for Novichok poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 2:20am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 6:54am

British Prime Minister Theresa May won the backing of 27 other European Union leaders on Thursday in blaming Russia for the poisoning of a former spy on English soil  

EU chief Donald Tusk tweeted that the 28 leaders agree with Britain it’s “highly likely Russia is responsible ... and that there is no other plausible explanation.” 

The unanimity is a victory for May. She has been striving to persuade her EU colleagues to unite in condemning Moscow over the attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter, Yulia. 

The foreign ministers of EU member countries already had expressed their “unqualified solidarity” with Britain.

But European politicians and leaders varied in how far they were willing to go in blaming Russia President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave May strong backing after meeting her on the sidelines of the EU summit.

The British prime minister’s office said they agreed “there is no plausible explanation other than that the Russian state was responsible.”

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose former Soviet state shares a border with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, also offered her full backing to Britain and said she was weighing whether to expel Russian diplomats from her country over the Salisbury attack. 

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German politician Manfred Weber, leader of the biggest group in the European Parliament, said Putin “wants to destabilise the European idea” and Europe must be strong in its response. 

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was more cautious. He said “we have to express our solidarity to the UK, to the British people, but at the same time we need to investigate.” 

Putin’s office said on Thursday that Tsipras had called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election and discuss issues, including the Salisbury poisoning. 

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he wanted to hear what May had to say before making up his mind.

Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko, said on Thursday that his country “can’t take British words for granted.”

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He accused the UK of having a “bad record of violating international law and misleading the international community.” 

“History shows that British statements must be verified,” he told reporters in London, demanding “full transparency of the investigation and full cooperation with Russia” and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW).

Earlier on Thursday, a judge gave doctors permission to take blood samples from the Skripals, who remain in comas in a British hospital.

Mr Justice Williams made the ruling after a hearing in the court of protection, where issues relating to people who lack the mental capacity to make decisions are considered. 

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Also on Thursday, Det Sgt Nick Bailey – the police officer who fell ill after discovering the pair unconscious in the English town of Salisbury – was released from hospital after also reportedly being affected by the neurotoxin.

The judge, who is based in the family division of the High Court in London, announced his decision on Thursday after analysing the case at a private hearing earlier this week. 

The Skripals – Sergei, 66, and Yulia, 33 – remain in critical but stable condition, hospital officials said.

The ruling came as Bailey was released from hospital, saying he was “overwhelmed by the support, cards and messages” in a statement read out by Wiltshire Police Chief Constable Kier Pritchard.

“The level of support has been unbelievable and I’ve tried to respond to what I can, but I want to say I have really appreciated every single message,” he said.

“I am just a normal person with a normal life, and I don’t want my wife, children, family or I to be part of that attention,” said Bailey. 

“There are really no words to explain how I feel right now. Surreal is the word that keeps cropping up – and it really has been completely surreal.”

Bailey was praised by the force’s chief constable, Kier Pritchard, who said that he was “amazed at Nick’s strength and resilience”, adding: “He really is a credit to Wiltshire Police and the wider police family.”

Pritchard said Bailey was improving each day during a prolonged recovery from the nerve agent but described what his wife and children were going through as a “horror”.

He said Bailey was receiving occupational therapy and psychotherapy. “We’ve extended occupational health support to his wife, Sarah, and their children. They [the family] are solid and strong.”

Pritchard also explained the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Skripals, saying that Wiltshire police initially responded to the incident as a medical emergency when they were found on March 4. 

But when antidotes given by medical staff failed to work, the force contacted the counterterrorism network and on Monday morning a major incident was declared.

Pritchard said the operation was still focused on gathering evidence and had not yet entered the recovery stage.

He said 80 police officers were guarding cordoned off areas to ensure evidence could be gathered. Once this had been done, decontamination would take place so the cordoned off areas were “fit to return to the public”.

He added: “It may take days, weeks, who knows? … It will be a fairly slow inquiry.”

He continued: “Our role is to ensure we return the community, Salisbury, the UK, back to normality.”

Pritchard accepted that concerns had been raised by members of the public about the nature of the nerve agent and the possible long-term impact on the environment. 

He told the panel that footfall in some parts of Salisbury and takings in some shops were down by 90 per cent.

He said he had met the Bishop of Salisbury, the Right Rev Nicholas Holtam, who had expressed concern. Visitor numbers at Salisbury Cathedral are down this month by more than a third compared with the same time last year.

Jane Morgan, the cathedral’s director of communications and development, said: “These are provisional figures and cover the periods of disruption due to snow and ice, as well as the recent incident.

“The downturn hasn’t taken us by surprise. Similar falls have been seen by colleagues at cathedrals in London when there have been major incidents there. 

“The message that we do need to get out there is that whilst a small part of the city has been affected, the city centre and the cathedral, which is at some distance from the sites under investigation, are both functioning normally.”

The bishop added: “Salisbury is an 800-year old cathedral city, gathered around one of Europe’s greatest buildings, which exists to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

“That life shows us that hatred and destruction do not have the last word. Love and life do.

“We are about to go through holy week to Easter. We welcome people of all faiths and none to come and celebrate with us.”