EU supports UK as Russia hits back in spy poisoning row

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Army and police vehicles block off the road at the Churchfields industrial estate in Salisbury, southern England, on March 16, 2018, where the car of Sergei Skripal was taken as part of investigations and operations in connection with the major incident after an apparent nerve agent attack in Salisbury on March 4. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said March 16, the alliance did not want a return to Cold War hostilities with Russia while expressing support for Britain’s strong stance on the nerve agent attack. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL

The European Union offered “unqualified solidarity” with Britain on Monday over a nerve agent attack blamed on Russia, as international weapons experts visited to take a sample of the chemical for testing.

In a joint statement, EU foreign ministers said they took “extremely seriously” Britain’s claim that Moscow was behind the attack on a former Russian double agent in the English city of Salisbury.

“The European Union expresses its unqualified solidarity with the UK and its support, including for the UK’s efforts to bring those responsible for this crime to justice,” they said.

The affair has plunged relations between London and Moscow into crisis.

President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the claim of Russian state action as “complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense”.

On Monday, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned Britain to prove Russia’s involvement or apologise.

“Sooner or later these unsubstantiated allegations will have to be answered for: either backed up with the appropriate evidence or apologised for,” he said.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian officer who sold secrets to Britain and moved there in a 2010 spy swap, remains in critical condition along with his daughter, Yulia, after they were found unconscious on a park bench on March 4.

Investigators from the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were due to visit Britain on Monday to collect samples of the nerve agent used.

They will meet officials from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, coincidentally located near Salisbury, where the chemical was identified as the Soviet-designed Novichok.

They will also meet police before sending samples to international laboratories for testing, with results expected to take at least two weeks, according to British officials.

‘Complete drivel’
In a joint statement last week, the leaders of the United States, Germany and France backed Britain’s analysis that the Russian state was responsible for what British police suspect was the attempted murder of Skripal.

It is considered to be the first offensive use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II.

The three countries called for Russia to fully disclose details of its Novichok programme to the OPCW, a demand also backed by the EU foreign ministers on Monday.

In his first direct comments on the incident, after winning a fourth term as president in Russia’s election on Sunday, Putin was defiant.

“It’s complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup,” he told supporters.

“We have destroyed all chemical weapons,” he said, adding that Russia was ready to take part in the investigation.

‘Malign behaviour’
Arriving in Brussels for talks with EU allies on Monday, however, Johnson said that “they’re not fooling anybody any more”.

“The Russian denials grow increasingly absurd. This is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation,” he said.

On Sunday, Johnson also accused Moscow of stockpiling the Soviet-designed nerve agent, in violation of the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

“We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok,” he told BBC television.

Britain last week announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, prompting a tit-for-tat response from Moscow. Britain also announced a boycott by members of the royal family and ministers of this summer’s World Cup football tournament in Russia.

But Moscow has accused London of casting the blame too hastily, and its ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, suggested at the weekend that Britain itself may have been the source of the chemical.

Britain has pointed to a similar case from the recent past: the 2006 radiation poisoning of former spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.

London has also emphasised what it says is a pattern of Russian aggression, including its annexation of Crimea and alleged meddling in Ukraine, which has already prompted heavy EU sanctions.

“There is scarcely a country round the table here in Brussels that has not been affected in recent years by some kind of malign or disruptive Russian behaviour,” Johnson said Monday.