‘It’s famous for its 123-metre spire’: Russian poison suspects say they were in Salisbury to admire cathedral, not kill ex-spy
British authorities have decried a Russian TV interview with the two suspects, who said they were simply tourists, as ‘risible’
The two men identified as suspects in the Salisbury nerve agent attack have appeared on Russia’s state-funded television station RT, claiming they visited the “wonderful” English city as tourists to see its cathedral, “famous for its 123-metre spire”.
The pair, who said their names were Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, appeared to resemble men shown in stills from security cameras released by British police investigating the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who had passed information to the British.
British police claim the names used by the men are aliases and there is evidence they are Russian military intelligence agents.
British officials decried the interview, calling it “risible.”
“The police and Crown Prosecution Service have identified these men as the prime suspects in relation to the attack in Salisbury,” a government spokesman said
“The government is clear these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service — the GRU — who used a devastatingly toxic, illegal chemical weapon on the streets of our country. We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March. Today, just as we have seen throughout, they have responded with obfuscation and lies,” the spokesman said.
In the RT interview the men said they had both been in Salisbury and were the people identified in the security stills.
“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” the man identified as Petrov said.
Boshirov said they had gone to visit Salisbury Cathedral, noting its high spire.
“There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral, famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world,” he said. “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one [of its kind] ever created in the world, which is still working.”
Boshirov said they “maybe approached Skripal’s house” while they walked around the city, “but … didn’t know where it was”.
John Glen, the Parliament member for Salisbury, offered a wry comment about the pair’s visit to his town, tweeting: “Delighted to see that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were able to see the world-class attractions that Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage.”
The RT interview appeared to show that Russia was not planning to deny the veracity of video evidence released by Scotland Yard, but to argue it had been misinterpreted.
The men confirmed they visited Salisbury twice, on March 3 and 4.
British police say the first trip was made to stake out the city in advance of the attack on the 4th. Petrov claimed they were trying to go for a walk on the 3rd, “but we lasted for only half an hour because it was covered in snow”. The weather was better on the 4th, Petrov said, so the two returned to see Stonehenge and the cathedral.
“We were just taking in the English gothic [style],” Boshirov said. “Nobody shows that part,” Petrov added, noting the security stills mostly showed the two men at railway stations.
The suspects contended that one photo released by British police was incorrect – a security still showing them at separate passport windows at the same time at Gatwick airport. A Russian foreign ministry official has previously said this was proof that Scotland Yard had doctored evidence.
“We always go together through the same corridor. One goes, the other waits,” Boshirov said. “So how did this happen? You should ask [the UK police].”
The two men were charged in absentia last week in the UK.
They are accused of conspiracy and the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, and of a police officer who was investigating the poisoning. Investigators say Novichok, the nerve agent used in the attack, was carried in a fake Nina Ricci perfume bottle.
Asked about the bottle on Thursday, Boshirov said: “Is it silly for decent lads to have women’s perfume? The customs are checking everything, they would have questions as to why men have women’s perfume in their luggage. We didn’t have it.”
On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin called for the two men to speak to the media. He said they were innocent and “nothing criminal” about them, apparently contradicting accusations by Scotland Yard that they were agents of Russian military intelligence.
British counterterrorism policing sources were understood to “stand by everything” they had said in naming two individuals from Russia as being responsible for the March attack.
One senior security source said of the pair that the UK government “is clear they are GRU” (Russian foreign intelligence), and used a “devastatingly toxic” weapon on Britain’s streets. Britain views the latest developments as “more obfuscation and lies” from the Putin government.
Sources say the conclusion that the men were GRU officers was based on intelligence about Russian operatives and further inquiries made after the March attack on the Skripals. British officials say they know the real names of the pair.
Rules in intelligence assessments were tightened up after the 2003 Iraq weapons of mass destruction debacle.
Additional reporting by Associated Press