Salisbury novichok suspects say they were only visiting cathedral

Salisbury novichok suspects say they were only visiting cathedral

British officials say Russian TV interview with men about Skripal poisoning is risible

The two men identified as suspects in the Salisbury nerve agent attack have appeared on Russia’s state-funded TV station RT, claiming they visited the “wonderful” English city as tourists to see its cathedral.

In their first interview since being charged in the UK with attempted murder, the men said they may have approached Sergei Skripal’s house by accident on 4 March, but denied that they were carrying any poison or that they had committed any crime.

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said a man who identified himself on air as Alexander Petrov.

He and the other man, Ruslan Boshirov, resembled men shown in stills from CCTV cameras released by British police investigating the attempted murder of Skripal, a Russian ex-spy who passed information to the British.

After Scotland Yard released photographs of the suspects last week, it seemed only a matter of time before Moscow would have to produce the two men.

On Wednesday Vladimir Putin told reporters that Russian officials had identified the two men and that they were “civilians”. He also said that they should come forward to tell their side of the story.

The result left sceptical Kremlin-watchers scratching their heads as to whether the suspects’ paper-thin alibi was a show of defiance by Moscow, a slapdash job by Russian intelligence, or a version of events aimed at a domestic audience.

Over 25 minutes, a visibly nervous Petrov and Boshirov gave cursory details of a two-day trip to the UK.

British police say that the names used by the men are aliases and that there is evidence that they are Russian military intelligence agents. They denied this during the interview, although they gave no information about their history or where they live. Nor did they show passports confirming their identities.

In the interview, the men confirmed they were the people in the CCTV images, indicating Russia was no longer planning to deny the veracity of video evidence released by Scotland Yard, but just to argue it had been misinterpreted.

Boshirov said the two 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.”

While they walked around Salisbury, he added, the two men “maybe approached Skripal’s house, but we didn’t know where it was located”.

They confirmed they visited Salisbury twice, on 3 and 4 March. British police say the first, brief, visit was designed to stake out the city in advance of the attack. Petrov said that they turned back because it was cold.

“We arrived in Salisbury on 3 March and tried to walk through the town, but we lasted for only half an hour because it was covered in snow,” Petrov told RT editor Margarita Simonyan. “We specifically went there [again] to see the Old Sarum, Stonehenge and the cathedral and decided to finish this thing on March 4,” he added.

Boshirov said that the two spent just an hour in Salisbury on 3 March “mainly because of the lags between trains”.

“We were just taking in the English gothic [style],” he said. “Nobody shows that part,” Petrov added, noting the CCTV stills mostly showed the two men at railway stations.

The suspects contended that one photo released by British police was incorrect – a CCTV still showing them at separate passport windows at the same time at Gatwick airport. “We always go together through the same corridor. One goes, the other waits,” Boshirov said. “So how did this happen? You should ask them [the UK police].”

The two menwere charged in absentia last week by UK authorities.

Investigators say novichok, the nerve agent used in the attack, was transported 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.”

Simonyan also spent time during the interview asking the men indirectly if they are gay, despite avoiding other topics about the men’s background during the interview.

“Speaking of straight men, all footage features you two together,” she asked. “What do you have in common that you spend so much time together?”

The men declined to respond. Simonyan later tweeted: “I don’t know if they’re gay or not gay. They’re so stylish, as far as I could tell - with their beards and haircuts, tight pants.

“They didn’t come on to me,” she added.

British officials described Russia’s new denial as so “risible” it left them “speechless”.

A British government spokesman said: “The police and Crown Prosecution Service have identified these men as the prime suspects in relation to the attack in Salisbury.

“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.”

British counter-terrorism policing sources were understood to “stand by everything” they had said in naming two individuals from Russia as being responsible for the March attack.

Security sources said they were sure the names the men used in Thursday’s interview were aliases, as police have previously said.

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 regime.

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. “The intelligence is as close to 100% as you can get,” said one senior UK source, and it is believed the UK holds other material supporting its key claims that has not been made public.

Andrew Roth and Vikram Dodd

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